Title: Stick Around
Author: Jilly James
Fandom: MCU/NCIS/The Sentinel
Genre: Romance, First Time, Contemporary, Crossover, Fusion, Sentinels Are Known AU
Relationship(s): Tony Stark/Tony DiNozzo (aka Dominic Rossi), Other Minor Pairings
Content Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Canon-level violence, explicit sex
Author Notes: I’ve taken liberty with the location of the FBI offices in NY—if you even can take liberties with the location of something in a fictional universe. Also, Tony DiNozzo’s name is Dominic Rossi, though he was born Tony DiNozzo. The reason for this is explained in the story. I just can’t do two people named Tony in a relationship. It’s too confusing.
Challenge: Written for the Little Black Dress Challenge on Rough Trade, July 2018.
Word Count: 24,079
Beta: Keira Marcos & Ladyholder
Summary: In the aftermath of the battle of New York, Nick Fury recruits a sentinel to be the new handler for the Avengers. Dominic Rossi doesn’t want the gig, but Tony Stark thinks he’d like it if Dom stuck around.
Jump to Cast Images
– – – –
4 May 2012
“Agent Rossi?” Agent Travers, one of his team, tapped on the doorframe as he stuck his head in. “We just got a terror alert, but I think it’s probably a prank.”
“That’s the kind of prank that lands people in jail.” Dom closed down the classified file he’d been reviewing. “Who sent it?”
“Uh…” Travers looked over the page. “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division.”
“SHIELD.” Alarmed, Dom got to his feet, securing his sidearm. “It’s not a prank. What’s the threat?”
“It says there’s a possible alien invasion imminent. Like extraterrestrial-type aliens. Supposedly coming through a portal somewhere in Manhattan? It says probably over Stark Tower.” Travers waved the page around. “A total prank, right?”
Dom’s heart skittered then raced. He grabbed the alert, skimming it quickly.
Maybe he should have joined SHIELD when they offered all those years ago. Well, no. He couldn’t stand Nick Fury, which made it kind of a deal breaker.
He went to the middle of the bullpen and climbed on a desk, giving a sharp whistle. “Suspend your disbelief because we don’t have time for it. We have a credible report that hostile, extraterrestrial forces may be attempting to invade the Earth via portal here in Manhattan.” At the immediate outcry, Dom yelled, “Hey!”
Usually he was easy going, so people knew he meant business when he yelled. “Can it! Focus on the problem and save your skepticism. Until such time as this report has been disproved, we will proceed as if it’s true. Travers, relay my orders to all floors.” The SAC for the Manhattan office was out for the week, which left Dom in charge of the field agents. “I’m taking tactical command.”
Immediately, Dom began barking out orders for evacuations. He set specific people to liaising with local law enforcement and emergency services. “Anyone in the building with sharpshooter certification is to join me in the armory, bringing two spotters each. We don’t know what’s coming, so be prepared for threats on the ground and from above. Keep people off the streets as much as possible—get them to the subway and then out of Manhattan.
“McGuire.” He turned to the guide he usually worked with in the field, Agent Dana McGuire. “Let the Alpha Primes know. The Manhattan S&G Center needs to help evac and prepared for S&R. They can coordinate sentinel involvement, but have them keep us in the loop.”
“Gotcha,” she said briskly.
“You good to join me on the roof?” he asked in a more hushed tone.
“I’ll be on comms coordinating the sharpshooters. Agent Beatty will have command on the ground.” He barked out a couple more orders then looked to Travers. “You up for being my second?”
Travers straightened, squaring his shoulders. “I’m in.”
“Sir!” Beatty ran over. “We’ve got reports that something is happening in the sky above Stark Tower.”
Dom made a snap decision. “If whatever this is will coming in from the sky, let’s assume there’ll be more aerial threat than ground. Stick to the plan—keep people off the street and try to get them out of Manhattan.”
– – – –
He’d managed to get sharpshooters on four rooftops, each with two spotters, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t anywhere near enough. There were grey aliens on some sort of flying sleds everywhere. As if that wasn’t terrifying enough, a gargantuan space slug-thing carrying even more grey aliens came in through the portal.
The spotters were responsible for keeping the aliens off their position, but they were barely holding their own. Dom’s people had submachine guns, sniper rifles, and handguns when what they needed were RPGs and railguns. And fighter jets. He’d be all for a few fighter jets right about now.
One of his teams two buildings down had already lost a spotter when two of the aliens had dropped onto the roof. McGuire, his guide and the biggest badass in the building, had shot two of the aliens in the head and then taken their energy weapons. She’d adapted to using it pretty easily and was advising the other teams while covering Dom’s ass even as her very presence allowed him to be more effective at blowing heads off.
Iron Man had been flying around, and comm chatter indicated that there were some other heavy hitters on the ground helping contain the threat.
“Team Bravo is getting hammered,” Dana said urgently.
“Dammit.” Dom fired a shot, taking down another sled-flying ode to the grotesque. Bravo team was in the worst position for Dom to provide cover. “Delta team?”
“Can’t cover them right now.”
“Motherfu—” He rolled from the position he was in to try to get an angle on the rooftop where Bravo team was. There were enough aliens on the rooftop that Dom could see them advancing even from the one shitty angle he had. He began firing, knowing it probably wasn’t going to be enough.
He’d dropped three more aliens when suddenly Iron Man suddenly did a flyby of Bravo team’s position, and there were explosions all over that rooftop.
“Bravo team is clear.”
“Thank you, Iron Man,” Dom murmured, getting back into his original firing position.
“You’re welcome,” Tony Stark’s voice came over their comms. “I felt the need to tap into your channel. Give a shout if you get stuck—Jarvis will be monitoring.”
“Roger.” Dom lined up the next shot.
“Rossi!” Travers yelled, nearly tripping over Dom’s legs while he was rapidly firing.
Dom pivoted, bringing his rifle around to find easily a dozen aliens closing in on them from the rear. “Fuck.” He took two shots in quick succession, hitting the target each time. He switched to the MP5, needing the sheer damage of the submachine gun over the accuracy of a sniper rifle.
More came and kept closing in until the three of them were backed against the ledge of the roof, using the HVAC system as cover as much as possible. Travers had taken one of those energy weapons to the leg and was barely standing, though he never stopped firing. Dana had blood running down her face but was shooting with precision. Dom was using a piece of metal siding to try to deflect some of the energy blasts while firing with the MP5.
Comm chatter had Bravo and Delta teams overwhelmed as well.
They were fucked.
He was consoled knowing that they’d done their jobs, and a lot of civilians had made it out of Manhattan under the watch of Dom’s other agents while his four teams had covered the evacuation route.
A loud roar preceded a deafening bang as the roof shuddered under their feet. A huge green guy began sweeping his arms around and flinging aliens off the roof. Occasionally smashing one into the ground like a ragdoll.
Travers pointed his gun at the green dude, but Dom quickly reached out and lowered it. “No shooting our helpful green…friend.”
The green dude flung one last alien off the roof then looked to them, blinking a few times as he stared at Dana.
“It’s like the love child of Kermit and Paul Bunyan,” Dom said, smiling in a way he hoped was non-threatening.
“Right, uh, Hulk. And very nice smashing it was. Top notch smashing, really.”
“Guide safe,” Hulk said with a nod to Dana.
“So maybe you’re more like the offspring of Yoda and Hercules,” Dom said, blowing out a shaky breath.
Dana cleared her throat. “Thank you, Mr. Hulk.”
“There’s more smashing to do, Green Bean!” Iron Man’s voice came over some sort of speaker as he flew by, hovering in the air to take out a few more aliens. “Let our friendly neighborhood sniper get back to it.”
“Funny man shoot more,” Hulk ordered, pointing at Dom.
“You got it, boss,” Dom said getting back into position and taking aim.
“Yes. Hulk boss now.” Then the green dude jumped off the building.
“Delta and Charlie teams are clear,” Dana murmured as she got back to back with Dom. “Meyers was the last man standing on Bravo team. Iron Man pulled him off the roof.”
Travers was down due to his leg, but he was still shooting.
It felt like an eon of intense fighting, but it was probably only a couple more minutes of the battle raging around them. They were running out of ammunition, and more of the aliens were taking note of their position again. Plus those space slugs kept coming, loaded for bear.
Dom led his next target and squeezed the trigger. He hesitated as a brief flash of something penetrated his consciousness. “Did Iron Man just fly by with a missile on his back?”
“Yeah,” Dana said breathlessly. “Some dude named Jarvis is keeping me updated. It’s a nuke, Dom. The government shot a nuke at us.”
Dom hesitated fractionally then forced himself to compartmentalize and took the next shot.
“Jesus, Dom,” Dana whispered, pressing close. Travers was close on the other side. “Iron Man just flew through that portal with the nuke.”
“Fuck me running, here we go again,” Travers picked up one of the energy weapons and started firing behind them.
Dom pivoted in time to see more of the fucking endless plague of aliens dropping down on the roof. He stayed focused on the problem in front of him, trying not to wonder if they were all about to be obliterated by a nuclear blast.
Then the aliens dropped. They just collapsed like their strings had been cut.
“The portal is closed,” Dana gasped.
“Is that Iron Man falling from the sky?” Travers asked, sounding fatigued and incredulous at the same time.
Dom couldn’t take the time to look. He was throwing weapons away from the collapsed aliens just in case they woke up again. At the same time, he let his senses expand to assess the state of the city.
A thunderous roar echoed through Manhattan, making him wince. Dana slid a hand up his back and helped him stabilize through the auditory spike.
– – – –
Tony jolted awake at the cacophony of sound, feeling every ache in his body. He was on the ground and not sure if the battle was still on or not. Then Rogers said they’d won, and the relief made Tony turn into a puddle of goo. He wanted to sleep for a week after taking a bottle of Vicodin. He knew the work wasn’t truly done, and he’d have to keep going a little longer.
He knew for certain was that the ragtag group Fury had dubbed the Avengers had all made it through the battle. but he had no idea what the death toll was for civilians. He wondered how many of the rooftop sniper teams had made it. He’d done his best to keep up with them and help where he could, but there had been so much to keep track of. He hoped they made it—they’d been very effective, especially that one sniper who’d been chill about Green Bean showing up.
Groaning, he got to his feet with Thor and Rogers’ help, feeling a little wobbly. He had no idea where his faceplate was.
“May we approach?” a soothing voice asked. It took Tony longer than it should to recognize the Alpha Guide and Sentinel Prime of New York state, Kyle Monahan and Scott Thompson. Monahan looked disheveled but otherwise much like he always did in public, but Thompson looked like he’d been through the wars. He was covered in grey and black, the sword at his side dripping with purplish black…stuff. He had a submachine gun in the other hand. He looked like a one-man war.
Tony noticed sentinels all over the place. He’d seen them in the streets during the battle, but hadn’t been able to put much attention to what was going on in isolated fights on the ground.
Everyone got out of Monahan’s way as he stepped up to Tony. “I can feel you’re in pain. Do you have any critical injuries?”
Jarvis gave a quick health report through his earbud, but Tony said, “I’m fine.”
“I gather you have more to do, and we won’t interfere, but can I help with your pain?”
Tony blinked and blurted out, “I wouldn’t say no.”
Monahan reached out and touched his forehead.
Tony’s pain was instantly blunted. “Whoa.”
“I’ve buffered your pain receptors. It will last about two hours. Try not to sustain any additional injuries.” Monahan smiled faintly. He looked at the rest of the group. “Anyone else?”
Barton and Rogers accepted, though Rogers looked almost bashful when Monahan approached him.
Hulk grinned toothily at the guide, causing Sentinel Thompson to tense. “Pretty guide,” Hulk rumbled.
Monahan laughed then patted Hulk on the arm. “Thanks, big guy. Nice smashing today.” Monahan looked to the rest of them. “We have sentinels leading search and rescue units into the hot zone, and we’ll spearhead the efforts to locate any survivors in high damage areas. Additionally, we have people establishing a perimeter to ensure no alien bodies or weapons are removed from the battle site.”
Tony nodded, glad his team was off the hook once they dealt with Loki.
Thompson took to wiping his sword on a scrap of t-shirt. Tony had never understood the sword thing, but sentinels tended to pop up with them over and over. “Stark Tower is the center of the battleground. We’d like to send a pair of ours up to the top of your building to help us visually as we begin to secure the city and start search and rescue.”
“If that’s all right with you, Mr. Stark,” Monahan added, elbowing his sentinel.
“Yeah. It’s fine. They nearby?”
“About a block out,” Thompson replied. “They’ll have ID, and both are FBI. Dominic Rossi and Dana McGuire.”
“Stark Tower was completely evacuated, but Jarvis will give them elevator access when they arrive.”
“Thank you.” Monahan flashed a smile at the whole group. “Thank you all.” He looked intently at Tony. “Especially for the…” he trailed off as he glanced up at the sky.
“Ah.” Tony cleared his throat. “No problem.”
Thompson herded his guide away. As soon as the prime pair were no longer in their midst, several sentinels peeled away from the shadows and followed them.
– – – –
Loki surrendered without a fuss, looking much the worse for wear. Thor cuffed him and left him sipping Tony’s Scotch and flinching away from Green Bean. It would take them a few days to build the device Thor needed to take them and the tesseract back to Asgard, so Tony needed to sort out where they’d house them between now and then.
“Sir, the FBI agents have arrived.”
A few seconds later, the elevator opened, and two of the people from the rooftop Hulk had landed on arrived—the sniper and his partner. The man was tall, had dark blond hair and green eyes. He was still carrying his sniper rifle. The female agent was about average height with red hair and blue eyes. She had bandages in several places.
“Tony Stark,” he offered, extending his hand to the sentinel, getting an odd little tingle when the other man shook it. He knew better than to offer the guide a hand, and she didn’t make any overtures. Likely she was strained from the day.
“SSA Dominic Rossi. And this is Special Agent Dana McGuire.”
Tony did a quick round of introductions. Hulk smiled, once again, at the guide.
“We’ve already met Super Saiyan Gumby,” Rossi replied with a grin, offering to shake the Hulk’s hand. Tony snorted some water up his nose, subtly grabbing a tissue.
Hulk carefully shook Rossi’s hand, and then McGuire offered hers as well. “Funny man. Nice Guide.”
Rossi started to say something, but McGuire laid a hand on his arm. “Dom…” she sounded odd, and Tony realized she was staring at the case they’d put the scepter in. “Whatever’s in that case is affecting that man’s mind.” She gestured to Loki who looked like he wasn’t paying attention, though Tony suspected otherwise.
“What news is this?” Thor asked severely, getting too close to McGuire.
Rossi stepped between McGuire and Thor. “Back the fuck off, Pikachu. I don’t care who you are, you charge on a guide like that again, and I’m going to turn you into a kebab.”
For some reason, Tony noted that Rossi didn’t say my guide. Before Thor could get indignant, Tony got involved. “Come on, Point Break, let’s all settle down and wait for the answers. Getting into a guide’s personal space is taboo here, okay?”
Thor backed off, offering a sheepish apology.
McGuire held up her hands. “Look, I can’t help. I just know that whatever is in that box is exerting enormous influence over the guy in the cuffs. And it’s not too healthy for the rest of you. You should call the Primes ASAP. You need a strong, bonded guide for whatever that is.”
Looking concerned, Rossi put a hand on McGuire’s back. “If you could show me where we can set up?”
Not wanting to drag the pair into whatever was going on with Loki, Tony showed them to his private landing pad for when he used the suit. “Let me know if you need anything.”
– – – –
It was well past sunset before Tony had time to really go outside and check on his “guests.” It had taken hours to deal with all the post-battle craziness. Thompson and Monahan had eventually shown up, looking tired and harried, bringing food and drinks for everyone.
Monahan had immediately made an epic bitch face over the case with the scepter. He’d psionically shielded the box with instructions that it would only last a day at most and that they needed to construct a box with psionic energy shielding.
Then he’d removed the rest of the scepter’s influence from all of them. Most notably affected were Barton, who sagged with relief and collapsed to the floor with his face buried in his hands, and Loki, who had actually passed out.
Thor was beside himself over whatever was going on with his brother.
Bruce was downstairs, sleeping off his time as the big guy.
Natashalie was with Barton, resting and carefully avoiding SHIELD as they couldn’t afford to be given any official “orders” before Thor and Loki were gone.
Rogers was poking at some leftovers and looking like he wanted to sleep for a month.
Tony was tired and unimpressed. Monahan’s pain blunting thing had worn off hours ago, and his recent conversation with Pepper was rattling around in his head. She’d been all over the place between relieved and nearly teary to something like angry. She’d said something about not being able to do “this” and not being able to take the stress. It reminded him of their conversation on a rooftop right after he and Rhodey had defeated Vanko and his legion of drones. For some reason, he thought she was more sincere about it this time.
Exhausted, but mind spinning, he grabbed a couple bottles of water for his sentinel and guide guests and headed outside.
McGuire was half asleep in a folding chair, chin propped on her hands, notepad and pen in her lap. She also had two phones and an earwig in. Blood had seeped through some of her bandages.
Rossi was standing uncomfortably close to the edge, staring out over the city, arms crossed, looking like a statue. Like a sentinel gargoyle or something. Only attractive instead of misshapen and grotesque. He nearly smacked himself for how random his mind was right now.
“Everything okay?” Tony asked passing over some water to McGuire.
“Yeah. I’m too tired to keep going, and that puts him in a bad position, so they’re trying to find a compatible guide to send up.”
“I don’t follow.”
“The great sentinel priorities in action.” She waved her hand Rossi’s direction. “The guide and the tribe. I’m hurt and exhausted, so the sentinel in him wants to see me tended to, but he needs to keep doing what he’s doing for the safety of the tribe. As long as I’m not in distress, we’re okay for the moment.”
“What is he doing?”
“Some looking but mostly listening. Sniffing from time to time. He’s monitoring the perimeter. No matter how many sentinels we have out there trying to keep things under control, people know how to distract us. Alien bits and bobs all over the place are a mighty fine inducement for some. People trying to get back into the quarantine zone are driving us all to drink.”
“The perimeter was pulled in, but it’s still more than a half mile in every direction.” Tony wondered if she really meant the actual perimeter.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Four teenagers just slipped by at Lexington and 57th,” Rossi said just loud enough for them to hear. McGuire went to tap her earpiece when Rossi tilted his head. “Lain has them.”
McGuire typed a text message on her phone.
“We have no line of sight to Lexington,” Tony said in confusion.
“Right. Like I said, he’s mostly listening. I don’t even know how, and it’s not my place to ask.”
Tony’s mouth fell open. There was a beehive of activity on the streets, which would continue unabated for days—at a minimum. How could he hear so much around all that racket?
McGuire yawned deeply.
“That guy,” Rossi said, still focused on the horizon, “the one who I talked to in the elevator. I don’t suppose he’s around?”
“Of course he’s around, he’s my AI, and he runs the building.”
Rossi turned and shot Tony a surprised look. “Huh.” He faced the city again. “His voice is very soothing. If he’s willing to relay messages to the command center and talk to me when I need it to stay focused, I think he’d do.”
Sensing that now was not the time to ask questions about that—no matter how curious he was—Tony just said, “J, you game?”
“Of course, Sir. I welcome the experience.”
Tony took a headset connected to Jarvis over to the sentinel.
Rossi met his gaze and smiled faintly. “You can set the headset on my chair. I’ll hear him.”
“You sure, Dom?” McGuire asked, sounding worried.
“Yeah, Dana.” Rossi turned and flashed her a reassuring look. “You need to rest, and my concern over your wellbeing is becoming a hindrance to my concentration.” His smile seemed sort of apologetic. “If I zone at all, Jarvis will report it to Kyle, okay?”
“Yeah, all right.”
“You were incredible today.”
“You weren’t so bad yourself, Rossi.”
“Careful, I’ll get a big head.”
Tony intended to show McGuire out to a sentinel who could escort her out of the quarantine area, but she was so wiped, he wound up showing her to a guest room instead. There weren’t any sheets on the bed, but she just collapsed on it, curled up in a blanket, and went to sleep.
Too tired to do anything but seek his own bed, Tony headed for his room, grateful it had escaped destruction.
When he woke in the morning, Rossi was gone, and Jarvis reported that the sentinel had stood watch over the city until seven in the morning.
– – – –
10 May 2012
“Here you go, Dom. Enjoy,” Vivaan said from the other side of the cart. “I haven’t seen you much this week. Are you well?”
“Yeah, just spending most of my time in the quarantine zone. But people have been bringing food in, so it’s not like we were starving.” Dom groaned at the smell. Vivaan’s wife and his mother-in-law hand made the only hotdogs he could tolerate since coming online. Being a sentinel was sometimes a pain in the ass, but smell and taste were particularly burdensome at times.
It was already after dark, but Dom was getting a bite to eat before he’d head home. It would be the first time he’d see his apartment since the battle. “I can’t tell you how grateful we all are that your family is pulling it out for us and keeping the Center folks fed.”
“It is no trouble. You are all working long hours, the least we can do is stay open a few hours longer. Especially after all you have done for us.”
Dom waved away the gratitude as he chewed and swallowed. “You don’t owe me anything. Just don’t let Jim and Blair lure you to Washington. I’d be peeved.” He’d stumbled across Vivaan’s family hotdog cart when he was tracking a suspect in Queens. The cart had been struggling in an area saturated with fast food and other street vendors, but they had something other vendors didn’t—sentinel friendly food. Dom had persuaded Vivaan to try setting up near the Manhattan S&G Center. Since catering to sentinels, the guy ran out of food almost every day and his family was in a much better place financially.
After the battle nearly a week ago, Vivaan and Marisol, with the help of her family, had been keeping longer hours to help feed the sentinels who had been patrolling in shifts twenty-four hours a day. The Center was picking up the food bill entirely.
“If you say so. Still, I assume Marisol’s cookies she baked special for you will be well received?”
While chewing, with his free hand, Dom made a grabby gesture. Marisol made perfect cookies. She made perfect everything. After swallowing, he said, “I’m going to marry your wife.”
“I’m not opposed to a threesome,” Vivaan said with a wink then laughed heartily when Dom choked and coughed.
When Dom’s eyes stopped watering, Vivaan asked, “How long will you be tasked with this effort?”
“The Bureau seconded me to the Center indefinitely, but I’ll be out of the hot zone soon. All the small stuff has been removed, and they’re almost done with the giant slug things, so our containment areas are smaller and more easily staffed by the Center. Once the slugs are gone, maintaining the perimeter through reconstruction can go back to the city.”
“It is good that the sentinels and guides are ensuring none of that alien technology falls into unscrupulous hands.”
Keeping the alien stuff contained had almost felt like an imperative. The invasion had sparked something in many of them, a great threat to the tribe had been looming, and none of them had known.
Sentinels had come online en masse in the hours after the invasion. The guides had soon followed. The closer to the battle, the higher the density of new sentinels coming online, but they’d seen spikes in new sentinel and guide numbers even overseas. It put the Centers in a state of being overtaxed, but especially in New York and the surrounding areas. New sentinels and guides were being shuttled out to other Centers while more seasoned sentinels had poured in to support New York through the search and rescue and clean-up efforts—including the much-publicized arrival of the North America Alpha Primes.
A familiar and unwanted smell teased Dom’s senses. He gave no indication he’d caught the scent and chatted with Vivaan for a couple more minutes, eventually taking his leave with another hotdog in hand and packets of cookies tucked in the pockets of his jacket.
He waited until he was about a block from the Center on a quiet street before turning to face Nick Fury. “Particular reason you’re following me around, Nick?”
“When did you make me?”
“You’ve been teasing my senses for a while, but I’m tired, and you were outside the quarantine zone, so it took me a minute to register that particular blend of too much leather and gun oil while I was getting my hotdog.”
“And yet you waited to acknowledge me.”
“I decided to see how motivated you were to talk to me, but then I decided I didn’t actually want to take you all the way to my home. I certainly don’t want to take the two SUVs that are tailing you.”
Fury rocked back on his heels, looking contemplative. “I have a proposition for you.”
“You haven’t even heard the proposition.”
“How many times have I turned your organization down? And, really, you know you should have sent Coulson. The answer would still have been no, but I actually like Phil, so I’d have bought him a dog instead of making him follow me around.”
Lips pursed, Fury glanced away. “Loki stabbed Phil through the heart before escaping our custody and traveling to New York.”
“I’m sorry.” Dom carefully considered his next words. “I’m not sure how close you and Phil actually were, but I know you’ve known each other a long time, and Phil respected you.” It didn’t escape Dom’s attention that Nick was forthcoming with information about a mortal wound yet didn’t come right out and say Phil was dead. “So, is Phil actually deceased?”
Nick’s scent pile betrayed what his outward appearance did not—Fury was surprised. Dom couldn’t afford to let on that he’d caught the tell because the damn spy wore scent maskers a sentinel of Dom’s supposed skill shouldn’t be able to get past without a lot of strain. Underneath everything was the faint scent of Phil. It was recent, and there was no scent of decay—though it didn’t smell quite right, either.
“That’s a helluva rude question to ask about a friend I’ve lost.”
“Ah.” Dom stared at Nick knowingly. “Well, whatever you’re up to, I hope Coulson forgives you for it.” Before Nick could say anything else, Dom held up a hand. “Just tell me what you want. Because we both know I’m not going to work for SHIELD.”
“But would you consider consulting? Taking over the job I had Phil slated for?”
Dom’s brow furrowed. “And what would that be…?”
Fury passed over a large envelope then put his hands in the pockets of his trench.
Sighing, Dom pulled out the pages, looking them over quickly. “Dear god, why would you want me for this?” He was aware that people could easily be listening, so he was careful about what he said.
“You’ve got the right blend of tactical and strategic experience. You don’t just go in the field, you plan the operations. Plus, you’re used to working with a wide range of personalities. As an added bonus, everyone’s reports have said positive things about you.”
Dom made a face. There was no way he’d do this, but he figured he’d put a bug in someone’s ear about what a Bad Idea this was, so he’d have to go along and let Fury convince him. “And how is this not working for you?”
“You’d be a consultant, so your own boss in that regard, but answerable to me in terms of mission parameters, so working for me, yes, but not working for us.”
“That’s a very fine distinction.”
“Well, I always assumed it was working for the organization you objected to and not working for me, especially considering you’d have worked for Coulson.”
Dom snorted. He’d liked Phil, but Coulson’s loyalty to SHIELD and Fury were the issue. He stuffed the pages back in the envelope. “I’ll consider it, but I’d like more complete dossiers on the team and to talk to them.”
Fury looked thoughtful then nodded. “All right. Our guests left yesterday afternoon. The team plans to go their separate ways tomorrow. I can ask that they hold up for a day.”
“A whole day? Gee, Nick, thanks for the consideration.”
“I know you’ve been pulling eighteen to twenty hour days, but keeping them all in one place any longer isn’t magic I can pull off. You’ll have the dossiers in the morning along with an appointment time. One of my agents will collect them from you after the meetings.”
– – – –
11 May 2012
“Sir, a message from Director Fury.”
“Fridays aren’t consulting days, J.” Tony made a face. Nick’s little spies were still in residence through tomorrow. Granted, Tony had offered, but he’d be happy to see the back of Romanoff/Rushman/Whatever-the-fuck-her-real-name-was. Barton was okay as those things went, and Tony was glad Bruce agreed to stay. He was on the fence about Rogers. It was somewhat weird that they’d all been holed up in a nearly abandoned building for the week, but they had reason to want to stay out of sight until Loki was gone. Stark Tower had been relatively unscathed, aside from cosmetic damage, so it had been safe to occupy.
The big question had always been containing Loki, but Thor had claimed the cuffs would dampen his “magic,” and Loki himself had seemed withdrawn and moody. Whatever the scepter had done to him hadn’t been trivial.
They had planned to keep the scepter on Earth but, after finding out about its influence even when psionically shielded and in several nested containment boxes, they’d decided to have Thor take the scepter too.
The first real sign of agitation from Loki had been when he’d realized they were taking the scepter, but that had been revealed as they were departing and by then it was too late.
Tony just wanted a break from all the world-ending antics. He wanted to sleep without seeing that alien army in space. Instead, he had to deal with more shit from SHIELD just as he was finally getting his tower back.
“Director Fury has arranged for a potential replacement for Agent Coulson to meet with the team this afternoon.”
“Thrilling.” Tony rolled his eyes and grabbed his phone to send a fuck-no text to Fury. “What bureaucratic paper-pusher has Fury arranged for us?”
“The meeting is with Sentinel Rossi.”
The phone slipped from Tony’s hand, clattering loudly on the floor.
“Shall I transfer your settings to a new device, Sir?”
“I get no respect,” Tony muttered as he assessed the phone. “This one is fine.” He blew out a breath. “When is he coming?”
“This afternoon at two. He’s arranged to meet with Captain Rogers first, then Agent Romanoff, Agent Barton, Dr. Banner, and, finally, you.”
“Best for last,” Tony said with artificial brightness.
“Naturally, Sir,” Jarvis said dryly. “After all, I’ll be escorting him down in the elevator.”
Startled, Tony gave a bark of laughter. “I can’t disagree with your assessment.”
“It is good to see you in good humor again, Sir.”
“Yeah.” Tony fiddled with the phone, appreciating Jarvis not pushing him about his recent ill humor. Pepper had indeed broken off their relationship. Or, rather, she’d given him an ultimatum. She’d phrased it nicely, but she’d basically told him to choose between her and being Iron Man. He felt guilty that it wasn’t more of a choice.
It had taken a couple days before the grief over losing their relationship had set in because he’d been so angry that she’d put him in that position. Especially considering the timing. He’d barely survived an alien invasion, but she’d needed an emotional bloodletting over their relationship right then. When he’d calmed down, he’d been able to acknowledge that it must have been traumatic for her to see him flying to what should have been his death. They’d both been dealing with too many emotions with no good outlet for them. It probably was a poor reflection of their relationship that they’d taken it out on each other rather than relying on one another. So they’d broken up and agreed to give each other time before trying to stitch their friendship back together.
Tony had turned his attention to obsessing over the logistics of cleaning up from the battle. He’d worked with Homeland Security and FEMA to resurrect the US Department of Damage Control to handle gathering and disposing of the alien bodies and tech.
He’d also thought about Sentinel Agent Rossi more than he should have. He found the man oddly appealing, and he hadn’t been able to get the image of Rossi standing guard over the city out of his mind. He’d asked Jarvis to run a background on the sentinel but had then decided not to actually look at it, the idea making him uncomfortable for reasons he hadn’t wanted to look at closely.
But if Rossi might be the team handler, he had no issue with looking into the man’s past. “Tell me what you have on Rossi, J.”
“Dominic Antonio Rossi was born Anthony Dominic DiNozzo Junior on the 9th of June in 1973 in Bridgehampton.”
“Huh. Wealthy family?”
“His father’s family had a small fortune by the standards of the day, though his father was cut off by his mid-twenties. Agent Rossi’s paternal grandfather’s will excluded his son or any of his issue from his will.”
“Oh? Do tell.”
“It seems DiNozzo Senior was something of a wastrel, I believe would be the proper term. He then set his sights on a young woman in Britain, the youngest child of Jaspar Paddington.”
Tony whistled lowly. “That’s some serious money.”
“Indeed. The Paddington family’s wealth was commensurate to Mr. Stark’s in the 70s and 80s. Their wealth has stagnated somewhat while yours has grown tremendously.”
“You say the sweetest things, J. Tell me more about Rossi… How did he become Rossi instead of DiNozzo?”
“Agent Rossi legally changed his name in 1994. Rossi is the maiden name of his maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Sophia Paddington nee Rossi. Dowager Lady Paddington was the oldest child of four; she had three younger brothers. Stefano and Antonio were born in Italy, and then her parents relocated to the United States and had a fourth child late in life named David.”
“David Rossi… Wait. Any chance it’s the same Rossi who writes the books about criminal profiling?”
“The same. Agent Rossi is Agent Rossi’s grandnephew.”
“Weird. So he changed his name to use his middle name and…his favorite uncle’s name perhaps?”
“The conclusion is logical. Sentinel Rossi calls his uncle, Antonio Rossi, regularly. I found significantly less contact between him and David Rossi. The impetus for the name change seems to be a criminal action taken against DiNozzo Senior on behalf of Agent Rossi’s financial institution.”
“Whoa.” Tony did a full 360-degree spin on the stool. “What did DiNozzo do?”
“When Agent Rossi was twelve, Mr. DiNozzo blocked his trust accounts claiming his son had been disowned.”
“Jesus.” And he thought Howard was a dick.
“Making an educated guess based on court filings, Agent Rossi discovered his father’s interference when he was seventeen. Since the trusts were established by the Paddington family, he was able to have his father’s hold on his trusts removed after approximately a year of legal effort. Two years later, his trust account was then emptied by his father using their similarity in name as his primary means of subterfuge.
“When the fraud was brought to light and the bank’s negligence in regards to confirming DiNozzo’s identity, the bank replaced the funds and pursued DiNozzo for fraud. Subsequently, DiNozzo was convicted of grand larceny in the first degree and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Agent Rossi changed his name while the trial was in process. DiNozzo was released on parole in 2005, immediately leaving the country. A warrant had been issued for parole violation.”
“Okay then. Remind me to never get into a battle of who-had-the-shittiest-father with Rossi.”
“Give me the highlights on Rossi that don’t have to do with his shitty family.”
“After his mother’s death in 1981, he attended various boarding schools until being transferred to Rhode Island Military Academy in 1985. He went to Ohio State University at seventeen and joined their football team as a freshman. He was also added to the roster of the basketball team the next year. A list of his athletic accomplishments has been sent to your phone.”
“A jock.” Tony huffed a little. “Was he at least a good jock?”
“His teams were at the Rose Bowl once and Final Four twice.”
Tony laughed. “Well then.”
Tony flipped through the data that Jarvis had sent to his phone. “He was a good student too.” Rossi was even scouted by pro teams until he broke his knee in his senior year. He got his masters in psychology while rehabilitating his knee and then went to the police academy of all damn things.
“Tell me about his law enforcement career.”
“Exemplary by all accounts. Rapid rise to detective. He changed police departments frequently for reasons unknown considering his evaluations. He was recruited to NCIS in 2001.”
“And so he became a fed.”
“The FBI made their first overtures the same year, but he declined repeatedly. Then Agent Rossi accepted their offer within a week of coming online in October of 2005.”
“As is the sudden retirement of the agency’s director a scant two weeks later; she had been in the role less than six months.”
“Now that sounds like an interesting story. Any details?”
“None readily accessible. My protocols require I consult with you before accessing classified information except in exigent circumstances.”
“Classified? That makes it an even more interesting story. Just how classified?”
“Top Secret, Sir.”
“Definitely stay out of that. Though it makes me even more curious.”
“I’d expect nothing less, Sir.”
“Send everything you compiled to my tablet and then let me know when he gets here.”
– – – –
“Sir, Sentinel Agent Rossi is running behind schedule.”
Tony looked up from the designs for the Mark VIII. “How disappointing… He seemed like the timely sort.”
“He arrived on time, but I’ve inferred that his interviews with Captain Rogers and Agent Romanoff went much longer than he expected.”
“I have the recordings from the conference room, Sir. His reactions indicate that he was…I believe the term would be flummoxed from time to time.”
“In many instances, especially during Agent Romanoff’s interview, I was uncertain as to the cause. But it would seem that he finds SHIELD’s behavior in regards to Captain Rogers to be less than desirable. He was attempting to lead the captain to a similar understanding.”
Tony doubted he had time to review the recordings now, but he rather gleefully looked forward to doing it later. “And did Rogers get it?”
“It was not apparent to me that he did, no.”
“And what was the source of contention?”
“At the risk of simplifying a complex conversation, Agent Rossi feels Captain Rogers should receive a year of counseling, training, and acclimation assistance before being granted active field status.”
“He’s not wrong. Allowing for extenuating circumstances.”
“Such as alien invasions?”
“As if.” Tony scoffed. “That’d never happen.”
“Of course not, Sir.”
“Let me know when I need to head up to the conference room.”
“In point of fact, Sir, Agent Rossi sent me a text asking if there were any psionically shielded rooms with sentinel countermeasures in place. If so, he would prefer to meet you there.”
“He sent you a text?” Tony asked incredulously.
“We spoke extensively the night after the invasion. Before he left, he said I could call or text him if I ever had the need. I extended the same courtesy, arranging a cell phone number for myself.”
Tony’s mouth fell open. “Has he texted you?”
“Are you serious? How come you didn’t say?”
“I didn’t deem it to be significant.”
Tony felt a gnawing worry. “Has he asked you to do anything?”
“I would have advised you if he had, Sir.”
“Then what did he want?” Tony’s brain caught up with his mouth. “I’m sorry, J. You don’t have to reveal your private conversations to me.” They’d just never had this kind of situation before. It was making Tony’s brain go tilt. Jarvis was having private conversations with someone. Someone not Tony.
“It’s of no concern, Sir. I have nothing to hide from you. His first text was expressing his appreciation for my assistance while he stood watch over the city. In the course of our conversation that night, we’d discussed the absurdity of criminal behavior. I confess, the illogic of many acts confused me, and I expressed skepticism. Consequently, he has sent several texts and photographs coupled with descriptions over the last week illustrating his point about the criminal mind as he worked with other sentinels to maintain the perimeter. There were also a few memes and a cat video.”
Tony busted out laughing.
“He also inquired after my wellbeing.”
“And how do you feel about that?”
“I…” There was a long, uncharacteristic pause “…found it refreshing.”
“I see.” Tony needed to think about that. Extensively. “I’m glad Agent Rossi has proved to be a good friend, Jarvis. Please steer him to my lab when he’s ready to meet with me.”
– – – –
“Sir, Agent Rossi is approaching.”
He cleared the holographic display of secret projects but left up a few things. The door whooshed open a few seconds later, and Rossi walked in. Tony had to force himself to keep breathing normally. Rossi had been disheveled, dirty, and a little bloody the last time Tony had seen him. Now, he was very put together and smokin’ hot in jeans and a leather jacket.
“Sentinel Rossi.” Tony gestured to one of the lab stools.
“Dr. Stark,” Rossi greeted, not offering his hand. He shrugged out of his coat then set it and a folder on the seat.
Tony blinked. So few people called him doctor. “Tony is fine.”
“Then call me Dom or Dominic—whichever you prefer.” He glanced around the room, grinning when he spotted the bots. “I recognize Dum-E from his magazine photos. I didn’t realize he had a brother.”
“The other one is U.”
“May I?” He gestured to the bots who both made inquiring little chirps.
“Sure…?” Tony had no idea what Dom wanted, but he was willing to go with it.
Dom rounded the work table and offered his hand to Dum-E, who offered his claw after a long hesitation. Tony just stared as Dom shook hands with both bots.
“Nice to meet you guys.” Then he faltered and turned to Tony. “Actually, I just realized that I was presumptuous. Sorry.” He looked back to the bots. “Do you all identify as male? Do you prefer a specific pronoun set?”
Tony’s mouth fell open, and then he snapped it shut as he met Dom’s gaze. Rubbing the back of his neck, he shrugged. “I’ve never discussed it with them.”
“If I may, Sir?”
“What’s up, J?”
“While I feel very comfortable with a male persona, Dum-E has indicated that he’s old enough to have determined that the designation non-binary would best suit. While U is most emphatic about being female.”
Tony sat heavily on a stool, flabbergasted.
“Then it’s nice to meet you, miss,” Dom said with a grin. U made a pleased sounding series of chirps.
“Don’t flirt with my little girl,” Tony groused irritably.
Dom laughed, holding his hands up in a surrender gesture.
Tony pointed at U. “And we’re having a chat later, young lady.”
U’s response sounded decidedly indignant.
Tony rubbed his hands over his face, resolving to think about it later. When he could deal with how he suddenly had a little girl. “Thank you,” he said impulsively to Dom, “for treating them like they’re not glorified furniture.”
“Are you really thanking me for not being a dick?”
That surprised a laugh out of Tony. “I guess. So… Super spy wants you to be the new Phil.”
“Did you activate your anti-surveillance measures?”
Tony quirked a brow. “Low level, yes. J, maximum privacy, please.”
“And why are we feeling paranoid?” Tony asked, watching Dom tilt his head in a listening pose for several seconds.
“I never had any intention of taking this gig, but I needed some concrete data to fuel my refusal. Also, and more importantly, it gave me a plausible reason to have a private chat with you.”
Tony crossed his arms. “Why’d you need to talk to me?”
“To advise you not to do this. Not in its current incarnation.”
“The Avengers thing.” Dom grabbed the folder from under his jacket and pulled out a few stapled pages. He set it on the table in front of Tony.
He winced at seeing Romanoff’s assessment of him. He pushed it away. “I’ve read it.”
“It’s bullshit. Designed to manipulate you into wanting to be part of the group whether you actually wanted it or not. Even if I hadn’t already come to the conclusion about what a bad idea this is, that level of manipulation would seal the deal on both my bad opinion of SHIELD and my refusal of the job. I get why Fury needs you to be part of this team—you’re the linchpin as far as I can see. And I get why he’d do anything to position the right people in his little club, but I don’t want to see you fall for it. That’s not really my call, of course, but I felt like I needed to say something.”
“You don’t think we can do good? We already saved the planet.” Tony wasn’t even sure why he was feeling defensive.
“I think there’s an obvious need—a need no one but Fury and a few others appropriately appreciated—but Nick has obsoleted himself.” Dom held up a hand. “Just hear me out. It’s more accurate to say that the Chitauri obsoleted SHIELD. I understand why Fury was building this behind the scenes—so he’d have it set when he needed it. But there’s no need for secrecy now. The world knows about aliens. They know about the threat posed by some alien species. The Big Secret isn’t a secret.
“So why would the planet’s defenders be an arm of a shadowy spy organization run by an even shadowier oversight group who shot a nuke up our ass a week ago?”
“Good point…” Tony drew out slowly. And he wasn’t over the nuke thing either.
“Honestly, the World Security Council, whoever the fuck they are, should be before Congress at a minimum for their hasty actions. I’d rather see them in front of the World Court. They were prepared to consign at least ten million people to an immediate or slow, painful death when probably only a couple thousand had died at that point. By any measure of risk assessment, the city would have needed to be overwhelmed with no chance of fighting them back before they took the literal nuclear option.
“There should have been hundreds of thousands dead before they tried to kill ten million. They weren’t protecting the planet with their hasty action, but I’m honestly not sure what their agenda was. Because if they really thought they were protecting the planet, they’re ill-suited to be the shot callers. Either way, they shouldn’t be making the decisions or pulling your strings. And they sure the fuck aren’t going to pull mine.”
“So you think the Avengers should report to someone else?”
“If there’s going to be a planetary defense force, it should probably have international funding and oversight. With enhanced humans involved, a sister organization to the Sentinel & Guide Council would make the most sense. After all, they have legal precedent for how enhanced people operate in society. But it shouldn’t be SHIELD or any spy organization.”
Tony considered for several long seconds, unable to find a flaw in Dom’s logic. “Why tell me and not the others? At least, from the privacy protocol you requested in here, I assumed you didn’t tell them…?”
“I was doing an assessment to see if my first impressions were off, but none of this team are field ready. Including you.”
“Is this another manipulation tactic?” Tony asked, feeling like the ground beneath him was unstable. “Get me to do what you want?”
“Quite the opposite. You’re the closest to field ready, in my opinion. But, for fuck’s sake, Tony, you flew into a portal with a nuke on your back a week ago. You need counseling for trauma first, and then to be part of a group that has strict guidelines for returning to field work. I wouldn’t want to see you on the front lines with a bunch of people who aren’t psychologically ready at your back.”
Tony felt tense again. “I have a shitty history with shrinks.”
“I’m not saying spill your guts.” Rossi hesitated. “Look, you’re a latent guide, so go see Kyle and get some post-trauma help. They have treatments that have nothing to do with talk therapy, and they’re especially effective for guides—latent or online.”
Tony gaped for a moment. “How do you know I’m latent?”
“I can smell it, feel it, hear it.” Rossi tilted his head, looking curious. “I apologize, but I had no idea you thought it was secret. The point is that you’re as able to avail yourself of the services of the Center as anyone. As I said, there are therapies for trauma that have nothing to do with talking about your childhood or teen angst.”
“Why Guide Monahan?” Tony asked, focusing on the part that made him less uncomfortable.
“There are a couple good people at the Manhattan Center, but I figured you’d be more comfortable with someone who you could be assured would be, uh, sensitive to your public profile.”
“That was very delicate of you.”
Dom shrugged, smiling faintly.
“I gotta test your commitment here…” Tony stared pointedly. “Did you get therapy after last week?”
Looking a bit confused, Dom cocked his head. “Sentinels don’t get PTSD. At least, not in the way others do. They’ve done tests that show we process traumatic events differently. A sentinel who kills in defense of their tribe has no post-action issue with the act. For a sentinel, trauma manifests as primal behavior. They’re usually very protective of their guide or vulnerable members of their tribe. It’s typically a short-term thing and, when the threat has passed, they go back to normal.
“But we do get the sentinel version of trauma checks after significant events or any kind of fugue state like a feral episode. They want to make sure we aren’t overreacting to threats or showing signs of hypervigilance. Both would usually mean we perceive a threat we can’t address. If the behaviors are unabated and without cause, they can be an indication of the onset of dormancy. So, yes, I’ve been checked, but not in the way anyone on this team needs to be assessed.”
“Fair enough. So, why aren’t the rest field worthy?”
“Rogers has no idea how the world works anymore. He doesn’t even know what the UN is, for fuck’s sake. He’s lost everyone and everything he’s ever known. Whatever life he envisioned for himself has been stripped away with no hope of recovery.
“He needs to have real connections to living people so he’s fighting for something tangible. He’s so wrapped up in idealism that I question his decision-making skills. You don’t want someone on the battlefield making decisions around ideals.
“Also, Fury has him positioned as the team leader, but Rogers has had zero training for that. His tactics are fine, especially for someone with minimal training, but he needs real leadership coaching. He had a few weeks of boot camp and then nothing but a bunch of fighting. He needs time, training, education, and therapy. All the therapy. He does not need SHIELD pointing him at battles and covert missions—especially covert missions. Rogers is the last person you want to find out that he’s done something morally questionable because he’s been misled, but that’s the nature of the spy game. Unfortunately, his trust in SHIELD is irrationally absolute.”
Tony was stunned, but he couldn’t fault any of the points Dom made. “And Barton?”
“He’s completely compromised by what happened with the scepter. He needs extensive counseling that I doubt SHIELD will insist on. Also, Romanoff is a blind spot for him; he’ll do dumb shit because of his loyalty to her. He’s also so grief ridden over Coulson that I’m surprised he’s functional. Not a good state of mind for someone you’re planning to send into battle.
“Romanoff herself is a hot mess. She’s okay for the kinds of missions SHIELD runs, but I wouldn’t touch a team with her on it with a ten-foot pole. She reeks of deception, and even when she’s telling the truth, it feels like a lie. There are no skills she brings to this kind of team that can’t be done by someone else. Someone the rest of the team can actually trust.”
“Intelligence gathering would be her strength, no?”
“She might be able to gather intelligence, but her ability to analyze it sucks. Actually, everyone’s ability to apply critical thinking to intelligence briefs was stunningly bad. My assessment of her analysis skills took up seventy-five percent of our time together, and she got the good intel wrong every single time. She has huge biases and misses the obvious, favoring bad intel if the source is somehow excessively convoluted and filled with intrigue.”
Tony rubbed his forehead. “I think I already get the problems with Banner, but hit me with it.”
“He’s been living under a rock for years. He’s so used to hiding, it’s going to be hard for him to stop. Going from being on the run to being a superhero is not a reasonable transition. He’s not ready for this. He needs protection by an oversight agency who will ensure he’s not called on for anything other than science unless the world is coming to an end.”
“So you think this whole Avengers thing is a bad idea?”
“No, it’s a good idea. Especially considering what we now know about what’s out there. Though the name is questionable. It sets up loss as a foregone conclusion—hence the need for avenging—but maybe that’s just me. In any case, you’re the best candidate for this type of thing. All of you—Tony Stark and Iron Man—but only if it’s not done in the shadows. Banner would be a good asset because he’s fucking brilliant, but it would also ensure that he’s protected and plugged in, ready to respond, should more aliens come knocking. But, Tony, this should be a volunteer mission for every single participant. No one should be conning you into it. The way Fury manipulated you is ugly as fuck. You should do what you want.”
“But you don’t want any part of this…?” Tony repeated.
“I don’t want any part of SHIELD or the World Security Council. In fact, if you can think of a way to shove a nuke up the WSC’s ass and want a partner in crime, I’m all in. And if you don’t need help, I’ll hold your coffee while you school them in proper behavior.
“But I can’t work for employers I can’t trust. Not even in a ‘consultant’ capacity, which is what Fury offered me. I’d never be able to trust any piece of intel from them, and I can’t work that way. But if you ever need me, I’m there. Even if I didn’t owe you—which I do—I’d do what I could to help.”
“What? You don’t owe me.”
“So that wasn’t you flying the nuke through that portal?” Dom asked wryly.
Tony felt his cheeks actually get hot, not used to being appreciated in such a way. “I did, I mean—” He rubbed his hands over his face.
“Just say, ‘you’re welcome, Dom. It was my pleasure to save your ass.’”
Tony snorted. “Dick.”
“Okay, seriously, do people never thank you for shit?”
“Um, Guide Monahan thanked me the day of the invasion. Does that count?”
“I suppose, but I find it disturbing that you had to flail about for one example.”
“I don’t need thanks,” Tony countered.
“Sort of not the point. Your discomfort with being thanked doesn’t give the world a pass on being a giant bag of dicks.”
“Are you always like this?”
“Well, I’ve been a little edgy the last week. I’m usually pretty chill.”
Tony cocked his head to the side. “Can I get personal?”
“That sounds dangerous, but I’m good with danger.” Dom propped his hip against the table, crossing his arms loosely. “Shoot.”
“What brought you online?”
“Oh. Uh, wow.” Dom cracked his neck, briefly looking uncomfortable.
“No, it’s fine. Weirdly, you might understand why I felt like I had to say something about this whole situation. There are certain things I can’t say, but you can draw the obvious conclusions I’m sure. You’re an intellectual badass.”
“I’m going to make up a T-shirt that says ‘intellectual badass’ and wear it to my next meeting with Fury.” Tony pushed another stool Dom’s way in case he wanted to sit. “By the way, I notice you never offered to shake my hand, and then you set the pages on the table. Was that deliberate?”
“Yeah.” Dom shrugged. “I’ve seen enough videos of you not shaking hands and saying that you don’t like to be handed things. I figure if it’s that reflexive, it’s true. So why would I try to make you uncomfortable?”
“Huh.” Tony stared at the floor for a second. People always tried to make him feel neurotic for those quirks. “Well, thanks for that. Now tell me your story.”
“My partner was murdered in front of me by a terrorist.” The blunt delivery was shocking.
Tony blinked, feeling a glimmer of guilt for putting the sentinel through having to say that. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about asking the question. If I didn’t want to answer, I wouldn’t. People stopped getting away with forcing me to do shit I don’t want to do a long time ago.” Dom took a deep breath before continuing. “Kate was standing in front of me when the bullet went through her skull. I’m sure you can imagine what the outcome of that was.”
“I have my own personal proof that being a sentinel changes how you process traumatic events because feeling her blood spray across my face used to wake me up every night in a cold sweat for months. Then I came online, and it never happened again.” Dom glanced away briefly and blew out a breath. “It was actually harsh to feel like I ‘got over it’ all at once. For a while, I thought it was a weird betrayal of some sort.”
Tony felt even worse for asking the question.
“Anyway, they think that event should have brought me online, and it possibly started an inevitable cascade that led to my onlining, but a sentinel or guide will not come online if it will harm them. I was recovering from a bioweapon attack a few weeks before Kate’s death, and Blair has theorized that the condition of my lungs would have been agonizing for a newly online sentinel, possibly leading to immediate sensory collapse. So, it didn’t happen then.
“But then, uh, we got a new director while searching for the terrorist. He was some sort of double or triple agent or something who had actually changed sides and was working for Hamas. But his agency swore he wasn’t responsible for Kate’s death. Right up until we had proof that he was a traitor. He was eventually killed during the manhunt. That should have been the end of it.
“Then, one day a few months later, his sister and handler—the woman who profiled our team for him, who profiled Kate as being my boss’s emotional weakness on the field team—walked into the bullpen with orders signed by our new director, assigning her to our team, putting her at Kate’s desk.”
“Fuck,” Tony whispered, utterly appalled.
“I came online instantly, feeling an overwhelming threat to my tribe. I went after her. My spirit guide went after her. She got quite a few bumps and bruises, but my coworkers managed to restrain me before I could do too much damage. My care for them prevented me from putting them in harm’s way. Then she threw a knife at me while I was being cuffed by my boss.” Dom touched his left side. “I went feral and nearly killed her. There was an investigation, and I was asked to let the whole thing go to save several people embarrassment. Long story short, no one closely involved in that situation, myself included, is still at NCIS.”
Tony could easily see why Dom wouldn’t want to work for people he couldn’t trust. “Thank you for answering. I kind of regret asking, so I’m sorry that all got dredged up.”
“Don’t worry about it. Nick Fury stirred all this up when he showed up yesterday and reminded me why I keep telling SHIELD to get fucked.”
“Why have they recruited you so aggressively?”
“I honestly don’t know. There are some things the Council has kept out of my public records, but I’ve always had a hunch that SHIELD got access. But that still doesn’t explain why they’ve been after me since I came online.” Dom shrugged and drummed his fingers on the table. “Listen, this may be talking out of turn, but I feel like I should tell you that Coulson’s not dead. At least, not completely. Or not yet.”
“Excuse me?” Tony was utterly flabbergasted.
“I don’t doubt that Coulson’s injury was mortal, but SHIELD can put people in stasis, and who knows what tech they have that no one knows about? All I know is that I could smell Coulson on Fury yesterday. The scent was fresh, and there was no smell of decomp. Although, to be fair, the smell wasn’t quite…right, but I couldn’t determine exactly what was wrong with it. I can’t imagine why Coulson’s survival would affect your decision one way or the other, but I didn’t want to leave you with incomplete data. Especially since it’s a piece of information Fury is withholding.”
Tony didn’t even know what to do with that except to figure out a way to get Jarvis further into SHIELD’s systems and give them a deep and thorough probing. “Thanks for the heads up. I’d certainly rather know than not. Though I have no idea what I’m gonna do with that info.” He steered the conversation back to the original agenda. “So…you think I should try to get an Avengers-like initiative launched at an international level?”
Dom held up both hands, shaking his head emphatically. “I offer no opinions. That would be advising you to put your life on the line all the time, and I won’t do that. But if you need assistance, I know a lot of people who can help you figure shit out. Jim and Blair, Kyle and Scott, Richard and Jeremy…”
“The heads of the Sentinel and Guide Council?
“Yep. I even know the current Secretary-General of the UN.”
“Well, aren’t you a useful fellow.”
“I’ve never considered knowing people a particularly useful skill, but I’ll take what I can get.”
“I’ll think about all this. Listen, I consider myself allergic to being serious, but thank you for being straight with me.” It was refreshing for Tony not to feel manipulated by people. “Since I’ve already asked obnoxious questions and gotten too personal, I’m gonna admit I’m rabidly curious over your spirit animal.”
Dom grinned. “She’s kind of big, so she usually only hangs around when I’m at home unless I need her.”
“Like elephant big?”
Laughing, Dom shook his head. “No. You want to meet her? She’s pretty graceful for her size. She’s not going to knock anything over.”
“I definitely want to meet her.”
A huge white tiger suddenly appeared next to Dom, and Tony took an involuntary step back, his fight or flight impulse immediately kicking into gear. He took a breath and forced it down. “She’s abnormally large,” he managed. “I mean, that’s not normal.”
“Yeah, she thinks she’s a tiger horse, don’t you, pretty girl?” Dom leaned down and kissed her head, scratching behind her ear. “Go say hi.”
Tony watched, wide-eyed, as the tiger prowled closer, nudging his hand. He cautiously stroked her big head, getting several pleased chuffs in reply. “Why Kali?”
“I decided she was a goddess and deserved an appropriate name. I laid out pictures of about a hundred goddesses, and she picked Kali.”
“That’s…terrifying.” Tony scratched her head with both hands. “But you’re beautiful and majestic.” Kali reared up and planted her paws on Tony’s shoulders and licked his face. He laughed at the sense of pressure and warmth, but it wasn’t wet.
“Kali, you incurable flirt. Get off him.” She dropped back down on to four feet as Dom grabbed his leather jacket, draping it over his arm. “If you ever need anything, you know where I am.” He turned to where the bots were resting in their charging docks. “Dum-E, it was great to meet you. Miss U, it was an honor.”
As his bots chirped away, Tony impulsively asked, “Want to grab something to eat?”
Dom turned and blinked a few times. “Uh, sure. But you know that we’d have to walk out, right? Still closed to traffic for four blocks in every direction. We will not go unnoticed.”
Tony considered that and made his second impulsive offer in a minute. “We could fly out.”
“There’s no chopper on this building. I would have noticed.”
“True, but I, uh, have a suit that Jarvis could pilot for you.”
Dom’s mouth fell open, and he just stared.
“I mean, if you’re interested.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? Of course I’m interested.”
Tony felt oddly pleased. “Good. So, then, uh…” he gestured toward the door then looked back at U. “And when I get back, we’re having a long talk, young lady.”
U’s beeps sounded sort of snippy to Tony. Dom’s laugh confirmed it.
He took Dom up to the penthouse level where the suits ready for flight were kept.
Dom was nearly bouncing with excitement. “I’m surprised you have a suit that would fit someone of my height.”
“Actually, I made couple suits in the event anyone needed to be evacuated from the tower. They have no armament.”
“Huh. Okay. And Jarvis will do everything? Because I know nothing about flying.”
“He’ll handle it all.”
“You okay with flying me around, Jarvis?” Dom asked.
“I’d be delighted.”
“Cool. I don’t know what this will be like from a sensory perspective, but if you think I’ve zoned, just do your thing. Your voice is very guide-like, so that should be enough. Although, all things considered, I’m most likely to zone on sound. So, if necessary, make my limbs cold or something, change the scent if you can.”
“I shall endeavor to stimulate your other senses should you fail to respond. If that should fail?”
“Just get me out of the suit and give me at least fifteen minutes before calling in the cavalry.”
“Is this dangerous for you?” Tony wondered if he’d been too impulsive with the offer.
“No. I haven’t zoned in years. They don’t let us loose on the world if we easily lose control. I mean, I figure if I don’t zone during a battle with aliens, I’m good. But it’s better to plan for the eventuality when it comes to new sensory experiences—that’s part of our training and the guidelines for being a field-active sentinel”
“But you had your guide with you during the battle. That makes a difference, right?”
“I’m not bonded to Dana. She’s one of my agents and helps me when I have to extend myself in the field. Our connection during the battle was pretty nominal. I’m more stable than most bonded sentinels, so we’re good to go.”
“Well, then,” Tony rubbed his hands together, “all that remains is to decide where we’re going.”
“How do you feel about Italian?”
“Are you kidding? I love it.”
Dom rattled off an address in Brooklyn so Jarvis could navigate. Then they worked to get Dom into the suit. The sentinel was like a kid in a candy store, and the reaction—his awe and wonder—made Tony feel lighter than he had since before the battle.
As they left the tower, Tony made a mental note to have Jarvis get into what had gone down at NCIS when Dom had come online—even the Top Secret stuff. He didn’t analyze why, but he wanted to know about any threats that might be lurking in the sentinel’s past.
– – – –
13 May 2012
The plasma cutter was pulled from his hand before he could even turn it on. “Hey!” He straightened up to find Bruce staring at him with a decidedly unimpressed expression on his face. “What’s up?”
“Do you always use a plasma cutter with your eye protection on top of your head?”
Reflexively, he touched the top of his head and found his eye shield right where it shouldn’t be. Sighing, he sat heavily on the stool and rubbed his hand over his face. “I guess I was distracted.” Dum-E was backing off with a fire extinguisher in his claw. “I can’t believe you were going to spray me with that!”
“I stopped him just in time. Where is U?”
“Exploring the residential levels. They need more to do—more stimulation and opportunities to learn. However, they have agreed that I can’t be trusted on my own, and it’s Dum-E’s turn to watch dad.” He shot the fire extinguisher another baleful look. Dum-E made a chirp that sounded decidedly annoyed.
“Seems like they aren’t wrong about you needing a minder.” After a long pause, Bruce asked, “You need to talk about it?”
“No.” He made a face. “I don’t know.”
“Well, as long as you’re decided,” Bruce said dryly.
The two of them were literally occupying the tower all by their lonesomes for the last day and a half, and Tony had reported to SHIELD that he’d flown Bruce out—he even had a helicopter up there to cement the story. The morning after Tony had dinner with Dom, the rest of the would-be Avengers had gone their separate ways, walking out of the quarantine zone. Tony was honestly glad to see them gone, and the tower was on lockdown until the roads were open to traffic beyond emergency crews, which should be later in the week.
He turned to look directly at Bruce. “Can I get your opinion on something? But this has to be completely confidential. Like our version of code word classified.”
Bruce closed the project he’d been working on, the holographic displays fading away. Tony had set Bruce up with his own lab four floors down but, so far, they liked working together. “This sounds serious.”
Tony grabbed a voltage probe off the workbench to give him something to fiddle with. “It is serious.”
“Then I give you my word that I’ll keep what’s said between us.”
“Privacy protocol, J.”
“Aren’t we alone in the tower, Tony?”
“Maybe. Natashalie is…sneaky. Jarvis monitored her like everyone else, and she never went anywhere but approved locations, but she wandered those approved locations a lot. It’s not beyond her skills to be able to plant surveillance devices so covertly that we can’t tell she’s doing it. Jarvis’ EM sensors in the tower were negatively affected during the invasion. So, I need to have the area swept for bugs and then get the tower fixed.”
“Still having trust issues with SHIELD?”
“They’re better than…some.” Bruce shrugged. “So, what’s going on?”
Tony wasn’t sure where to begin. “What’d you think of Dom— Agent Rossi?”
Bruce lifted one brow. “I only spent about thirty minutes with the guy, but there was nothing to make me think negatively of him. Did he take the position with SHIELD to ride herd on the team?”
“I haven’t heard anything officially, but I doubt he’d accept Fury’s offer.”
Bruce nodded slowly. “It’s an odd fit for a sentinel, don’t you think?”
“Maybe. Though handler doesn’t mean no field work.” Tony thought back to their conversation over dinner two nights ago. The place Dom had taken him had been a tiny hole-in-the-wall with maybe ten tables. The woman who owned the place, Bella, was in her seventies and obviously doted on Dom like a grandmother. She’d shooed the two of them upstairs to what seemed like her private apartment. One of her grandsons had brought them off-menu dishes all afternoon and into the evening. They’d gone through three bottles of wine while talking for hours.
They’d avoided discussing anything related to SHIELD or the Avengers, but the conversation had gotten surprisingly personal. Well, surprising for Tony. One thing that had come up briefly was that Dom found the world’s perception of sentinels frustrating at times. Because while sentinels were drawn to certain things and certain professions, it wasn’t the be all of their existence.
“I had a much longer talk with him than you did, I think. Would it surprise you to hear that he expressed concern for you?” Tony asked, feeling his way a bit.
Bruce’s brows shot up. “In what way?”
Tony started from the beginning of his conversation with Dom and revealed almost the entirety of Dom’s visit to the tower, leaving out a few things that weren’t germane to the issue of SHIELD or the Avengers.
Bruce was frowning heavily by the end of the tale. “Can I see this report? I mean the one Romanoff wrote?”
“Yeah, Dom left it when he was here. I never had a real copy of it before that. Jarvis? Would you bring it up?”
Bruce slipped on his glasses and shot Tony a quick look before focusing on the scanned pages with the SHIELD logo on the top. “You two got close kind of quickly…?”
“Never let it be said that you’re unobservant.”
“I even observed you dodging that question.”
Tony made a face. “I don’t usually click well with people, you know? Not in a real way. There was Rhodey, you…a couple others who aren’t around anymore. And, yeah, I clicked with him. We grabbed dinner after he did his good deed.”
Bruce stilled for a second before flicking the hologram to the next page. “Not Ms. Potts?”
“Eh. We became close over a long period of time, but it was very…superficial before the last year or so. She always saw through my shit though, but, strangely, I never really stopped trying.” He laughed, shaking his head. Maybe that was a clue.
After another thirty seconds or so, Bruce made a disgusted noise and dismissed the document. “He’s right about that being garbage.” He turned to face Tony. “But it’s harder to spot that kind of thing when it’s directed at you. She manipulated me pretty well too.”
“Maybe it was telling how much Green Bean didn’t like her.”
Bruce’s expression was complicated. “Maybe. To my knowledge, he’s never gone after someone who wasn’t a threat to us. But, from what I’ve heard, he was fixated on her…and not in a good way.”
“You should trust the big guy. He’s a good judge of character.”
“You say that because he likes you.”
Tony grinned. “And I have excellent character.”
Bruce’s lips twitched. “You’re not so bad.” His expression sobered. “Listen, Tony, I’m not the right person to advise you about this.”
“And why not?”
“Because I can’t be objective.”
“Then be unobjective. I want to know what you think even if it’s obnoxiously biased.”
Bruce made a frustrated gesture. “I can’t find any flaw in his logic, but I don’t really want to.”
Tony suddenly got it. “Ah. If he’s right, and if I do what he suggests, it’s the best-case scenario for you.”
“Exactly. So I can’t give you advice.”
“Right…” Tony got up, rubbing his hands together. “Then I have all the reason I need to go forward with The Plan.”
Bruce’s mouth fell open. “Did I miss something?”
“In your pointless attempt to be conscientious, you pointed out something I’d overlooked. That even though SHIELD has done better by you than Ross, they haven’t done well by you. There will be—in fact, already are—enhanced people who need to be protected from the evil machinations of various agencies and governments. And since we need a planetary defense team, we might as well swing for the fences. Go big or go home; it’s what I excel at. Isn’t that right, J?”
“I’m not going to entertain any demurrals, Brucie Bear. Let’s build a better superhero boy band than Nick’s, shall we?”
“You’re crazy.” But Bruce was smiling, so Tony figured he’d secured a wingman for his future machinations.
– – – –
15 May 2012
“Sir, your visitors have arrived. They are entering your private elevator and will arrive on this floor in forty-eight seconds. Dr. Banner remains on the 75th floor, working on the layout for his lab.”
“Thanks, J.” He cleared his displays of anything confidential. He’d had Jarvis reach out to the Center yesterday morning, asking for an appointment. Guide Monahan’s schedule had been booked for several weeks, but a return call had come in with an offer to meet the next evening at Stark Tower. Tony had accepted but was puzzled as to the choice of venue.
The door swished open, and the prime pair walked in, the sentinel immediately taking stock of the entire space. He’d seen them both a couple times on the day of the invasion, but they were as on edge as the rest of the city despite Guide Monahan’s ability to remain guide-like under pressure. Now, they were the way Tony was used to seeing them in the media. Both were dressed casually and were attractive in different ways. Monahan was classically beautiful while Thompson was handsome in that I-could-kill-you-with-my-death-glare, bad boy kind of way.
“Sentinel Thompson, Guide Monahan, thanks for squeezing me into your schedule,” Tony began. “Though I’d have readily come to the Center whenever was convenient for you.”
“We’re pretty informal, so first names are fine. Actually, Dom said if you ever asked to meet with us we should consider that it might be highly sensitive,” Monahan replied. “And that the Center facilities might not be the best option.”
Thompson had his head cocked. “Do you have any room better shielded than this?”
“Privacy, J,” Tony requested.
The sentinel winced at the same time Jarvis confirmed activation of the privacy measures. “Yeah, that’s better than at the Center. That should work, plus I noticed there’s only one other person in the building. Down on seventy-five, I think.”
“Yes.” Tony didn’t elaborate. “I have my bots down there right now, too.” Bruce was getting better about interacting with the bots, and Tony figured they needed more exposure. Bruce needed it too. U had taken a particular liking to the other scientist.
The sentinel stayed pretty close to the door, propping up a wall, but Monahan moved closer to Tony. “Oh.” He pulled a small parcel wrapped in brown paper from the jacket he’d draped over his arm. “Dom sent this for you.” There was a brief hesitation before he set it on the table.
Tony figured to open it later but, when he picked it up to set it aside, it was pliable in his hands. The size and feel told him it was likely clothing. He was too curious to leave it, so he ripped the paper. There was a short note on top of some black knit fabric.
— In case your next meeting with Fury is soon. -D.
Fighting a smile, he unfolded the shirt to find something very close to his favorite Black Sabbath T-Shirt in color and style. Instead of the gas mask, it had his bots in a back-to-back formation, each sporting a small Iron Man mask on their arm. The letters, in a font very similar to the original tour shirt, read: Intellectual Badass.
Tony was feeling something he couldn’t quite name. There were people in Tony’s life who he knew cared for him, but gifts were rare because people struggled with what to get him. And when he did get gifts, they often missed the mark and were ridiculously ostentatious. This was perfect. He wasn’t sure what to do with that. He made a mental note to send Dom a text later and then wait until he had privacy to sort out his feelings.
“Thanks for the delivery.” He set the shirt on a corner of his computer table, which was much safer than his workbenches.
“How can we help you, Dr. Stark?” Monahan prompted.
“Tony,” he replied reflexively, drumming his fingers on the table, trying to figure out how to say what he needed. “I need help getting planetary defense out from under the World Security Council.”
Monahan and Thompson exchanged looks—some sort of complicated eyebrow code. Monahan replied, “Jim and Blair are still in town—will be for a few weeks, actually. The WSC has been quite the topic of conversation lately. You okay with them joining us if they can get away?”
“That’s fine. I can drop the security protocol so you can dial out, or you can give the number to Jarvis, and he’ll put the call through for you.”
Once the call went through and the North American primes had agreed to cut dinner short and join them, Tony flailed about for what to talk about for the projected forty-five minutes it would take them to arrive. Going with another impulse, he said, “Dom mentioned that latent guides can avail themselves of Center services.”
“Yes, of course,” Monahan said. “Even those like you who have no desire to come online.”
“Pardon? Like me.”
Sentinel and guide exchanged another look. “That’s in your Center records, put there by the head of the LA Center.”
Tony made a face. “That guy and I did not get along.”
“Well, the couple who ran the Center in ’07 are no longer there—for good reason. Want to fill me in?”
“I had one meeting with the guide who ran the place, and he wanted to council me into coming online—whatever the hell that means. I didn’t think people could be persuaded to come online.”
Monahan’s expression was pinched. “I assume you know there are degrees of latency?”
“Yeah, though I never paid more attention to it than that. You’re not wrong that I never wanted to come online. But there being degrees of latency makes perfect sense now that we’ve mapped the gene related to sentinel or guide potential. That’s about where my interest ended.”
“Well, short course: People come online across the spectrum of latency, but people at the lower end of the scale come online less than the people at the upper end.”
“That logically follows, I suppose.”
“Tiers one through four are low latency to high. There’s a fifth tier that has varying degrees of genetic latency, but it’s coupled with some particular biomarkers that put them in a special group where they always come online—unless they don’t wish it. That tier was identified first, actually, since they found the biomarkers more than a century ago. If a guide or sentinel has these particular markers, regardless of latency, they seem to come online by about age thirty.
“Interviews with those who have these markers and don’t come online show they all have one thing in common: they do not wish to come online. Quite strongly do not wish it. Actively wanting it doesn’t seem to be a factor but not wanting it is.
“You were tested as a teenager, well before genetic testing. We don’t have a complete profile since there was only the one test, and so don’t know your degree of latency, but we do know you’re in Tier-5 because you have all the biomarkers.”
Tony felt distinctly uncomfortable. “So, since I’m not online and I’m almost forty-two, anyone can infer that I don’t want to be.”
“Not anyone. Your profile is only viewable by people with clearance, and no one else should know about you being Tier-5. But the point is that there emerged a practice, which was never officially sanctioned by the Council, of trying to coach what were termed ‘reluctant’ Tier-5 sentinels or guides into ‘changing’ their minds. In some cases, especially with latent guides, it got a little too close to brainwashing.
“There were some very negative consequences that I’m not at liberty to speak about, but the Council cracked down on the practice in ’09, resulting in quite a few Centers coming under new leadership. Many Centers have swung hard the other way and avoid proactively contacting Tier-5 people to avoid any appearance of impropriety.”
“And was that the case with your Center and me?”
“No.” Monahan looked surprised. “When I heard you were relocating to New York, I contacted your offices and told them we were available to you if you ever needed anything, and we provided credentials for Pride-only areas of our site so you could view schedules and resources. We were politely told not to call again.”
“Sir, if I may,” Jarvis interjected. “I believe that may be a misinterpretation of the directives you left for dealing with the LA Center.”
Tony sighed. “J, fix the protocols and send a memo to whoever is answering my calls these days that anything from the Center should be routed to you.”
“So,” Tony continued, “it’s obvious to you and anyone with ‘clearance’ that I have no desire to be a guide.”
“Yes, but it’s not something I have any right to comment on or ask you about. Our role is to support you if you have need but otherwise protect your privacy. It’s not my job to have an opinion about whether you want to be a guide or not. And, honestly, I figure choice wouldn’t be a factor if it wasn’t supposed to be a factor. I don’t question the biological design for sentinels and guides because it’s worked for as long as civilization has existed.
“The point is that anyone who is latent is entitled to support from the Center if it falls within our realm of services. You’re entitled to classes, education, use of mediation and psi-shielded spaces. And there’s a laundry list of health services because sentinels and guides, even latent ones, are just a bit off from the mundane population.”
“And I formally apologize for any pressure anyone has ever put on your to change your mind or justify your choices,” Monahan said seriously.
“It’s hardly your fault.”
“Yes, but for me, in the role I’m in, it’s akin to a doctor hearing about blatant malpractice. I may not have done anything, but it shouldn’t have happened, and I take it personally.”
“It really wasn’t all that. The guy was a judgy asshole, so I hung up on him and put him on a list.” He gave frustrated huff. “Look, Dom made a remark to me about maybe needing some sort of help to be what he termed ‘field ready.’” The whole conversation made Tony uncomfortable, but he figured it was better to do it now than after Sandburg and Ellison showed up.
“I would think so,” Monahan replied. “Most of us do. We’re having to institute new procedures for sentinels because so many of them are now hypervigilant just at the knowledge that there’s an alien threat out there. Guides felt people’s terror, felt them dying. We’ve had more appointments for trauma-related services in the last week than the last six months combined. And you were in the center of all that, flying to your death with a nuclear warhead. I can’t speak for you, but I would need help with it.”
“And what is it that you do?”
Thompson was the one who unexpectedly answered. “I read about your BARF thing once.”
Tony took the non sequitur in stride. “I never quite got the neural connections right for broad applications. And then other things took up my time—were more important.”
“You weren’t the only one working on what to do about traumatic memories. How to reprocess or reframe them.”
“Exactly,” Monahan agreed. “There are a couple methods that help with memory desensitization.”
“So it’s not yapping? It’s more like a technology?” Tony clarified.
“More like a…technique? But, no, not talk therapy. There’s some discussion of the memories in the sense of guiding things and focusing on the right memories. I can have some information sent over.”
Tony nodded. “So if I needed to do something like that, who would do it?” he asked bluntly, wanting to get all the information he needed so he wouldn’t have to ask this again and could make an informed decision.
“I’m certified to do it. So is Blair, and he’ll be here for a few weeks. There are a couple other people at the Center, but I’d only refer you to someone else if you objected to one of us.”
“I’ll consider it.”
Monahan nodded, obviously accepting that Tony was done with this part of the conversation.
Tony wound up showing the pair around the lab until the big kahunas arrived. He liked Jim and Blair immediately, finding Blair to be easy to be around because of his energy. Jim was stoic but not as reserved as Scott.
When they finally sat down and started talking, everyone was supportive and had good ideas, and Blair in particular was full of suggestions to help refine Tony’s plans. Tony would need to make several trips to Europe and Japan for some critical face-to-face meetings, but it seemed like the idea might not be too far fetched.
Blair also promised to pull Tony into the loop on pursuing the WSC legally for their role in shooting a nuke at New York. Tony wanted to pull them apart for what they had done, so he was eager to throw his resources at the problem.
Tony at least had a direction and some help. He’d done more with less.
As a bonus, when he was showing the quartet around his floors in the tower after the meeting, the sentinels asked about the surveillance devices they heard. Tony had been peeved, but he truly wasn’t surprised. They’d then gone on a bug hunt through every floor any Avenger had access to. More than thirty surveillance devices had been consigned to live in a mug in Tony’s refrigerator. The number of bugs pissed him off.
Later, after everyone left, he pulled out his phone and fired off a text.
TS: Thanks for the shirt.
TS: Gonna to have to engineer a meeting now.
DR: His royal sneakiness or me?
TS: Him. I’d just ask you.
DR: I feel bereft at your lack of asking.
TS: Drama queen. Dinner this week?
DR: I’m barely a duchess in the high holy rankings of theatrics. Any night is good.
TS: I’d be perplexed over the sad state of your social life but since you run around calling yourself a duchess, I guess the mystery is solved.
DR: Too late to be the strong and mysterious type?
Grinning, he rapidly shot back a reply.
TS: Much too late. Thursday at 7. My pick this time, although, Mama Bella’s is a high bar.
DR: The highest. Mama makes sfogliatelle on Thursdays. I’ll bring you some in case you don’t bring your A-game with the dinner choice.
DR:‧º·(˚ ˃̣̣̥⌓˂̣̣̥ )‧º·˚
TS: OMG. How old are you?
Smiling, he went to find his kids and Bruce.
– – – –
17 May 2012
“Daddy’s home,” Dom announced as he walked into his team’s bullpen. “What have my kids been up to while I was away?” It was his first day back with the FBI though he’d been getting reports from McGuire while he was working for the Council.
Everyone looked frazzled, and it was barely eight in the morning. He spent more than an hour making sure he touched bases with all of his agents, determining who needed some time off ASAP and who needed some time with the department shrink. Too many needed time with the shrink. But most of the building was in the same boat, and psych services were overloaded.
He wished he could have been here for everyone the last couple weeks, but the safety of the city overall had been a higher priority. Twenty-seven FBI agents from this office had died during the battle, and the safety of the city and its residents was prioritized above that too. The memorial service wouldn’t even be for another two weeks.
His “team” was larger than a normal field team but too small to be considered a full unit, which put him somewhere between a supervisory agent and a unit manager. He had resisted the promotion to full unit manager because he wanted more time in the field.
After he’d gotten everyone squared away, McGuire followed him into his office and shut the door. She flopped near bonelessly in the guest chair and waved a hand toward a package on his desk. “Package come for you. Special delivery. It’s from Stark Industries.”
He was instantly curious but set aside the urge to open the small box. Dana didn’t seem to think anything was odd about the delivery, which struck him as strange.
“Last week, I got an email with a certificate for a spa day. It was really sweet of him. I’ll admit that I’m looking forward to things settling down so I can schedule it,” she volunteered.
“That was nice of Stark,” Dom said, going for noncommittal.
“Yeah, from what I can tell he just sent stuff to the two of us. I guess because we were up in his tower all night and he met us?”
“Seems likely.” He gave her an assessing look. He’d needed a subject change anyway, but his senses were telling him that Dana was a little too close to the edge. “How are you, Dana?”
“Just tired. The emotional tone of the city is making me crazy. And everyone here is kind of a mess. It’s a miracle we didn’t lose anyone on our team, but some teams were not so lucky. It’s a lot of grief.” The losses from the sniper teams had come from a different group, but they’d been part of Dom’s temporary team, so it hit hard.
He frowned. “You get checked at the Center?”
“They’re overloaded. I filed a report that I’d get the guide support team at the Bureau to check me out.”
“And did you?”
Her silence said everything.
“Dammit, Dana. Now I have to bench you.”
“Oh come on, Dom!”
“No. I’m not listening.” He held up his hands in a fending-off gesture. “It’s been two weeks. Guide services isn’t enough anymore. Desk duty until the Center clears you.”
“And what if you need a guide in the field?” she challenged, looking more than a little annoyed.
“Then I get someone else.” He shot her a look. “You know I have to do this.” It was for her wellbeing first and foremost, but a guide on edge could begin to break down empathically and then project emotions. Things were already tense enough.
She slumped further into the chair. “I know. I can’t even say what I was thinking, I just…want it to all go away. I want everyone to not be feeling so sad.”
“Yeah, me too.” He blew out a breath. “Look, take tomorrow off and make it a long weekend. You know you need to reset away from all this.” He knew no one had taken a real day off since the invasion. Law enforcement and emergency services were stretched too thin. “Before you go today, I’d like an assessment of who is closer to the edge than the other. I need to start rotating everyone through at least a day off, and I’d like your recommendations on where to start.”
She relaxed a little, probably at knowing she wasn’t being singled out. “Will do.”
As soon as he was alone and his door was shut, he reached for the small box with the SI logo in the corner. Inside, he found a phone the likes of which he’d never even seen before. He pulled the piece of folded paper out, finding a handwritten note.
— We’re releasing this model in six weeks. It was the only way I could send you your real gift. Make sure you’re alone when you activate it.
The note was unsigned. Dom turned the phone over in his hands, feeling a little conflicted. He wasn’t sure what the real gift even was, but the phone itself seemed over the top.
Just in case, he flicked on the white noise generators and turned on the phone.
After a few seconds, Good morning, Dominic Rossi, appeared on the screen.
Dom blinked and just stared at the phone.
Do you prefer Sentinel Rossi, Agent Rossi, or Sentinel Agent Rossi?
Eyebrows shooting up, he poked at the phone a bit, but there was no obvious way to type. Feeling weird, he said, “I prefer Dom.”
Thank you, Dom.
Is this a suitable time for your gift?
The phone wasn’t the gift? “Sure.”
“Good morning, Dom,” came over the speaker in Jarvis’ distinct voice. It had taken him a bit to get Jarvis to address him by his first name in their texts.
He grinned. “Good morning, Jarvis. I confess to being a little confused. Couldn’t I already call you?”
“The application is a bit different. Sir is allowing me to function as your virtual assistant.”
Dom sat back heavily. “Oh.” He rubbed his hand over his face.
“Are you displeased?”
“No, that’s not the right word. Overwhelmed.”
“In what way?”
“I’m projecting a bit here, so bear with me, but if I were Tony the most precious thing I could give someone is access to you.”
“I see. It’s rare that I’m unable to formulate a response.”
“Well, we’re in the same boat.” He blew out a breath. “I have no doubt that there is nothing in the world more important to Tony than you, so I’m confused why he’d do this for me.”
“Perhaps Sir did not closely analyze his own reasons, but I cannot speculate beyond that at risk of violating Sir’s privacy. However, I believe he did this for me as much as you. I’ve expressed that I enjoy our interaction. He is endeavoring to allow the bots more interaction, and perhaps he is attempting the same for me.”
“I think of you as a friend, Jarvis. I don’t want to treat you like an assistant.”
“I have no doubt that you will always treat me well. If it helps, think of me as a friend who runs your phone.”
“Can I ask you a question first? If it violates any privacy protocol, of course don’t answer.”
“You may always ask.”
“Is the phone—not you, but the phone—some sort of disproportional quid pro quo? I send him a T-shirt, and he sends me an expensive, pre-release phone that had so many pre-orders that it’s considered sold out for a year after launch?”
“I believe you are over-estimating the value Sir places on the phone. If one made soap, one wouldn’t give soap to just anyone, but the value of the soap itself is low.”
“Ah.” Dom’s lips twitched. “Shall we name the phone Irish Spring?”
“I would not wish to be blamed for such a poor choice.”
Dom laughed. “Use analogies at your own risk, Jarvis.”
“Lesson learned. Might I add that I believe you underestimate the value Sir placed on the T-shirt. It’s a rare person who understands what Sir values so thoroughly and so quickly.”
“Thank you for explaining that.” Dom hadn’t felt like the shirt was overly insightful, but he wasn’t going to push Jarvis into areas that might force him to defend Tony’s privacy. “So, how do I do this? Set up the phone? There are no instructions in the box.”
“Simply place your existing phone next to this one, no more than an inch apart. I will transfer your data, clone your network settings, and set up the phone to the existing specifications.”
“Wow. Okay.” He hesitated briefly. “Jarvis, as awkward as this is, I have to broach the issue of confidentiality. I take my phone to meetings where classified information is discussed.”
“I do not actively monitor you the way I do Sir. The programming on your phone is unique compared to other Stark phones because of my access, and one of the alterations is a subroutine that passively monitors for the use of my name. When you use my name, I will then be actively engaged.”
Dom didn’t have any concrete reason to trust people he’d known for a week and, realistically, he shouldn’t, but his gut said this was okay. Maybe better than okay. He put the new Stark phone down on top of his existing iPhone.
“It’ll be nice to have you around, Jarvis. I can be chatty, so if I’m ever bothering you, just say.”
“I welcome the interaction.”
The setup was done so fast, Dom was sort of stunned. It was unlocked when he picked it up. “What’s the security protocol?”
“Oh, nice.” Jarvis had set things up as close to what he had before as possible. “What’s this app icon that looks like the bots?”
“The children, as Sir calls them, have recently requested they be given a communication method. I programmed an interface for them to send messages. However, their means of communication and ‘thought’ isn’t easily translated into conventional spoken language. They understand language more easily than they can express themselves. I’ll continue to refine the algorithm but, for now, their texts are somewhat stilted.”
Dom was grinning like an idiot. “I can text the kids?”
“They specifically requested that I add them to your phone. This functionality was added just yesterday. Sir has been besieged by messages.”
Dom began laughing again. “That’s priceless.”
“I admit to being most amused by Dum-E’s worry about Sir’s safety protocols in the lab. And U has developed something of a fondness for Dr. Banner.”
Amusement subsiding, Dom stroked his thumb over the surface of the phone. “Thank you, Jarvis.”
“It’s my pleasure.”
He opened the text app and immediately sent a message to Tony.
DR: This is the most amazing thing ever. Thank you.
TS: I do make the coolest toys.
DR: I don’t mean the phone, Tony. I can buy one of those. Eventually. Though, yeah, the phone is cool and the balance is better than the iPhone. It’s awesome and thank you for that too. But I mean the access to your kids and J.
There was a long pause before a reply came in.
TS: Don’t get all emo on me.
DR: Too late. I may even cry on you later. There could be hugs.
TS: Please tell me you’re kidding.
DR: Clinging like an octopus and a fucking river of tears. Be a gentleman and bring a hanky.
TS: I’m considering a sudden business trip to Mongolia.
DR: As if. We both know you want to hear my assessment of how much better the Stark phone is than my iPhone.
TS: Gah. If tears are the price of hearing how much more awesome I am than Jobs, I’ll deal with your waterworks.
DR: Decent of you.
TS: I’m good like that. Pick you up at 7.
DR: What do you mean pick me up?! Pick me up where?
There was no reply for several minutes.
DR: Where are you picking me up?
DR: You asshole.
Dom rolled his eyes and set down the phone.
– – – –
At the sounds of a double-tap on a horn and a high-performance engine, Dom lowered the book he was reading and watched the red and black Acura NSX pull up to the curb about fifty yards from where he was seated on a park bench. The top was up on the sports car, so Tony had to lean over and glare at Dom out the passenger window.
“Jarvis, he looks a little testy.” Dom grinned.
“Sir has been put out over rush hour traffic in the park.” Jarvis’ voice was too low for anyone but a sentinel to hear.
“Are you going to sit there like a lump?” Tony’s voice easily traveled to his ears.
Dom bit his lip, trying to hide his amusement, gathered his book, and headed for the car. He slid into the front seat as gracefully as possible, narrowly avoiding being kneecapped by the glove box. “You’re late.”
Tony huffed and gestured expansively at the traffic. “Why are you in the park?”
“I didn’t know where to meet you, so I thought a central location would be advisable.”
“I suppose I deserved that.” His tone was distracted as he stared at where Dom’s knees were trying to mate with the dash. “What are you…all leg?”
“Blame the car designer not my perfectly serviceable legs.”
“Did you really call your legs ‘perfectly serviceable’?”
“Oh shut up.”
Laughing, Tony pulled back into traffic, which was moving at a slightly better pace than it had been when Dom arrived at 6:30. “Sure thing, Duchess.”
Dom’s phone chimed softly. “Sorry, I gotta check that.”
Tony shot him a look. “Just how quiet do you keep your phone?”
“As quiet as possible. They don’t make a soft enough vibration to not be annoying to a sentinel,” he replied absently while reading the message from another team lead. Sighing, he put the phone away.
“Not exactly. New York has experienced more attempted bank robberies in the last two weeks than the last year combined. People seem to think an alien invasion makes for a good time to try to rob a place with alarm triggers everywhere and security cameras. I don’t really follow the logic. Oddly, it’s escalating, and the task force is getting overwhelmed. A new player decided after hours was a good time to give it a go. They caught a few in the act, but it doesn’t seem to be our any of our serial offenders.”
“Bank robberies? Really?”
“All crime is up right now, but non-violent crime is off the charts. I’m not actually on the task force, but a couple of my people are, so they’re keeping me in the loop.”
“Did you always want to be a sentinel?” Tony asked, and the conversational left turn made Dom stare for a few seconds.
“Uh. Not exactly. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a super sentinel, someone who could hear when people were in danger and stop bad things from happening.” He glanced out the window, thinking that back then his idea of ‘bad things’ was stopping dads from saying mean words. “I got over it, just like most kids do.”
“And while you were a cop? Did you want to be a sentinel then?”
Dom glanced over, brows raised. “Background check?”
“Does that surprise you?”
Laughing, he shook his head. “I’m sure Jarvis is better than average at ferreting out information. So, just how much do you know about me?”
Tony shrugged one shoulder. “Probably more than you’d be comfortable with.”
“Eh. It takes a lot to make me uncomfortable. I’m not sure you’re up to that particular challenge yet.”
Tony sputtered. “Did you just challenge me to try to make you uncomfortable?”
“Take your best shot, Iron Man.”
“Game on, Super Sentinel.” Tony straightened his shoulders, like settling into challenge. “Why’d you leave Philadelphia? I figured out most of your job changes, but that one was confusing.”
“Hmm. Nice one.” He wondered if Tony had really figured out Baltimore. “Well, I’ll tell you but file it in the do-not-tell-anyone drawer of your mental filing cabinet.”
Tony shot him a quick look then focused back on the road. “I’d never repeat the things you tell me.”
“Likewise.” Dom felt like there was some sort of serious undercurrent there, but he filed it away for later thought. “I had a long-term undercover assignment in the Macaluso crime family. Eventually brought the Don down, Mike Macaluso. He was…fond of me. Even after he found out I was a cop.”
“Thought of me as a son. Wanted me to marry his son as a matter of fact. Take over the family biz. When he found out I was a cop, it didn’t seem to change much for him, which was weird. After he was convicted, he asked to see me, so I went to the prison. He said that he couldn’t just let it go or he’d lose control of the business—lose respect.”
“That’s not scary at all.”
“I figured I was looking at protective custody or some such shit, but he offered me two choices. Stay in Philly and marry Mike Jr., which meant I had to stop being a cop. Plus, I would have to take over the Macaluso businesses.”
“That sounds like the carrot. What the hell was the stick?”
“There would be a kill order put out with a million dollar payday but it was only collectible if I was in Philly of my own free will and killed within the city limits in front of one of the three current heads of the family.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Nope. Like I said, he was fond of me.”
“It’s very fond—practically a declaration of love. Right after I moved to Baltimore, I was abducted and taken to Philly by a guy wanting to collect the bounty. He took me to Mike Jr., figuring Mikey wouldn’t care how I got to Philly. I was blindfolded for all the shenanigans, but there was a gunshot, and then Mikey says that trying to manipulate the family would not be tolerated. That I had to return to Philly of my own accord.”
Tony drummed his fingers on the top of the steering wheel, expression tight. “So you’re basically safe as long as you—”
“Never go to Philly. Right.”
“That is both terrifying and completely and utterly weird.” He glanced over. “And that didn’t make you uncomfortable?”
“You asking about it? No. It’s a thing that happened, but it’s not important anymore.”
“As long as you remain geographically aware.”
“Right.” He laughed. “Geographical awareness is key.”
“Jarvis, I assume you’ll assist in case he suddenly develops a lousy sense of direction?”
“Indeed, Sir,” Jarvis’ voice came over the car speakers.
“I’ll have you know I have a great sense of direction.”
“Leave nothing to chance.”
“Aw… are you worried about me? I may cry on you yet.”
“Have you always been like this?” The words were snarky, but Tony was fighting a smile.
“I’ll try another round of make-Dom-uncomfortable later.”
Tony laughed. “But answer the original question. The sentinel one.”
“I never thought about it much after I went to military academy. I figured if it was gonna happen, it would. And if it didn’t, I wasn’t gonna lose any sleep over it.”
“Is that why you don’t have a guide? You’re ambivalent about being a sentinel?”
Dom’s mental processes ground to a halt for a second.
“Did I unintentionally succeed in asking the right-wrong question?” There was hesitation in Tony’s voice, and anxiety suddenly permeated his scent pile.
“No. It’s a fine question. I’m not ambivalent about being a sentinel,” Dom said emphatically. “I love it, for all that it really sucks sometimes—because, god, the smells. But I am ambivalent about having a guide.”
“That’s…not what I expected.” Tony’s head was cocked like he was confused.
“It’s a long story, but people acted kind of weird about me when I came online, and the whole guide thing was presented as if… I don’t know how to explain it. Sort of like, ‘you’re a nut, you need to find the right bolt so you can make this fabulous mid-century chair.’”
Tony started laughing. Hard enough to make him swerve a little. “Not a fan of mid-century décor?”
“Meh.” Dom couldn’t help but smile at Tony’s amusement. “It just felt like building a toolkit. Honestly, I’d just lost everything I cared about, and then there was this huge sentinel thing. They wanted me to find a guide immediately and deal with the even bigger bonding thing so that I could be the best possible sentinel.
“I lost my shit about it. Told the Center in DC to never call me unless they had a perfect match—because you can’t decline those notifications. Shortly after, I moved to New York. Kyle and Scott are more humane in their approach. They act like it’s about compatibility rather than utility. I think most Centers do, especially after the Council took a long hard look at some of their practices a few years ago. But I got unlucky, I guess. Then again, DC is a political place so it’s not surprising that they’d take a very aggressive approach to having another strong bonded pair based there.”
Tony was quiet for several moments, but his heartbeat was even, and his scent was back to normal. “That was almost seven years ago, right? You never changed your mind? Tried to find someone compatible?”
“I’ve been happy, and I work great with interim guides when I need help to do my job. I’ve never felt that thing I’ve heard from many bonded pairs—that connection. And it hasn’t bothered me because I’d rather bond to be with someone than bond to be a better sentinel.”
“Okay, really? The guide-slash-mid-century-décor conversation didn’t make you uncomfortable?”
“Why would it? Should I be uncomfortable that I’m fine being an unbonded sentinel? Is it a crime to like a good Saarinen chair?” He nudged Tony lightly with his elbow. “It makes other people uncomfortable, not me.”
“Does it? Make other people uncomfortable, I mean.”
“You have no idea. With some of them, I can smell their discomfort. It oozes from them like too much garlic.”
“Ugh. How do you deal with smelling everything?”
Dom laughed at Tony’s obvious horror. “You can get used to anything, but I just dial off people I don’t want to smell.”
Tony shot him an incredulous look. “You can do that? Shut out one person?”
“I learned how. Isolate one person’s scent pile then turn it off.” He snapped his fingers like it was magic. In reality, it had taken a ton of work. “Some people you just don’t want to smell more than once.”
“I see how it is. If I want to make you uncomfortable, I need to go the route of scent.”
“Don’t even. You won’t like the war that ensues.”
“What are you gonna do? Start handing me things?”
Dom was surprised and charmed that Tony would joke about his own neuroses. “Just smelly things.”
“If you want to make me uncomfortable, you’re going to have to try harder than handing me things no matter how malodorous.”
“I’ve already got a lock on that, Tony. It seems all I have to do is cry on you…get all soggy with sentiment.”
“That’s low, Rossi.”
“I fight dirty, Stark.”
“And wet, apparently.”
– – – –
Tony pulled into the parking garage under Stark Tower and to his private parking area. “Two minutes to spare.”
A lot of the roads were still closed due to repairs, but there was a convoluted path that allowed him access to the tower. Still, the roads that were open closed at midnight for overnight work. Tony and Dom had lost track of time, so Tony’d had to haul ass to get back to the tower before the roads were shut down.
The city had prioritized repairs over most other infrastructure work to allow companies with habitable buildings to get back to work. Although, with road damage only being a few blocks in every direction, many companies were open and having their employees walk in from designated drop-off points. With Stark Tower being in the center of the disaster zone, there had been no access until a critical road opening yesterday afternoon.
Dom laughed at something he was reading on his phone. “I’m still working on understanding the bots. When U says, ‘Dad. Home. Now,’ is she saying that she wants you home now or that you are home now?”
Tony couldn’t stop the smile. The bots suddenly sending him text messages had been one of the most overwhelming experiences of his life. And that they’d decided, without input from him, to call him “Dad” had made him feel choked up. He’d set up a display in the lab to relay messages from them rather than having to go to his phone constantly. Because they could be chatty.
“I’m not sure.”
“U is observing that you entered the building, Sir,” Jarvis clarified.
Tony laughed. “Tell them we’re on our way.” He glanced at Dom. “You mind stopping by the lab?”
“Of course not.”
“And then I’ll give you your shirt back,” Tony grumbled, though he didn’t really mind wearing Dom’s shirt.
Dom laughed and set about extricating himself from the car. Tony made a mental note to take a car with better leg room next time.
They got up to the lab on 79, and the bots immediately surrounded Tony, making inquiring little chirps. U plucked at the button-up he was wearing untucked.
Their comm screen lit up.
“No, it’s not mine.” He jerked his thumb toward Dom who was wearing a plain white T under his jacket. “It’s his.”
“He fell in a creek,” Dom volunteered with a grin.
Tony rolled his eyes. “You plowed into me.”
“You stopped dead right in front of me.”
Dum-E: Fire extinguisher.
“No!” He took a breath. “No. Not every problem needs that. Besides, I was wet. We need to work on water versus fire.”
U rolled over to Dom and began poking at his T-shirt then pulled at it with her claw.
“You want my shirt?” Dom asked, looking amused.
“You can’t have his shirt.” He looked to the monitor for a reply.
U: Want. Like Dad.
“Aw, Tony, she wants my shirt so she can be like her dad.”
Tony was flustered and touched.
“How about a compromise,” Dom offered. “You can have the shirt Tony’s wearing when he’s done with it.”
“You don’t have to—”
“It’s fine, Tony. Let her have the shirt. If she gets tired of it, she can give it back to me.”
U: U accepts.
Tony’s lips twitched. “I guess we have an accord.”
Dom laughed. “Kali!” The huge tiger shimmered into view. “The kids want to play. You game?”
She moved away from Dom then pressed up against Tony, and he petted her head for a few seconds before she moved to an open area of the lab and let the bots surround her. They petted her gently with their claws.
“All right, guys,” Tony said, “We’re going upstairs. Kali will disappear when she’s had enough. Then into recharge for all of you. Don’t think I missed the alert about your battery level, Dum-E. You didn’t recharge last night, so no excuses.”
Tony waved goodnight to the bots then grabbed a laughing Dom by the elbow and hustled him out of the lab and to the elevator. Once the elevator was in motion, Tony had a bare couple seconds to figure out what the hell he was doing. And he didn’t have an answer when the door opened on the penthouse apartment.
Dom shrugged out of his jacket, leaving him in jeans and the white t-shirt, and looked around the living area, probably noticing more than Tony would want most people to see. But he didn’t ask any questions.
“The building was barely open before the attack, so not all departments had even moved in yet. Pepper took on renting temporary space rather than shuffle our people in through the chaos. She’s working out of that office and staying in a condo.” He ran his hands through his hair, not sure why he was explaining. “We didn’t even have much stuff here yet other than clothes and furniture, so it was easy to move her out.” They’d talked about Pepper a bit during their first dinner at Mama Bella’s, so Dom knew all about the breakup. “Maybe easy isn’t the right word.”
Dom leaned against the arm of a sofa, crossing his legs at the ankles. The posture drew attention to how long his legs were. The whole night had conspired to draw attention to his “perfectly serviceable” legs.
Before Dom could say anything, Tony jerked his thumb toward the bedroom. “I’m gonna go change. These jeans are still damp enough to be uncomfortable. Um.” He gestured to the kitchen area. “Help yourself to whatever you want.”
Once in the bedroom, he took a moment to settle his nerves and abruptly decided to take a quick shower.
He was gone maybe five minutes, and he immediately missed wearing Dom’s shirt, which was odd. When he got back to the living room, Dom was standing by the windows, staring out over the city.
Tony stepped up next to him. “I like the view at night. It looks whole again. Everything seems so broken during the day.” He glanced over at Dom’s profile, finding him looking pensive. “It doesn’t look better to you, does it?”
“Not really. Curse of being a sentinel…fewer illusions.”
“Is that a curse?”
“Illusions can be nice.”
Tony looked back out at the city and silently agreed.
“What happened on the bridge?” Dom continued to stare at the lights of New York.
“You were fine, we were talking, having fun…then you froze. Your scent has been strange since. It’s a lot of things, but anxiety keeps creeping in.” Dom turned his head and met Tony’s gaze. “If I make you uncomfortable, I can go.”
“No. It’s not—” He shook his head. He wanted to make a joke, brush it off, but he knew he couldn’t actually lie to Dom, and he didn’t really want to. “When I picked the garden for dinner, I hadn’t really…thought it through.”
“What was wrong with it? I thought it was nice. Beautiful.”
One of Tony’s oldest friends—of a casual type of friend—owned a botanical garden about an hour aside of the city. It usually closed around seven in the spring, so it was easy enough for Tony to arrange to have food delivered and to have a private dinner with Dom on the terrace at eight. Though they’d arrived closer to nine. As a result, the food had only been decent—Tony picked a good place after all—but it hadn’t been great reheated.
What had been great was the conversation, the laughter, and the company. The sheer level of comfort he felt with Dom was kind of addictive. They’d gone for a walk in the gardens, still easily shifting from the serious to the amusing. Tony had never met anyone who wasn’t put off by his mercurial mood shifts. Who could follow him from snarky to sentimental and didn’t mind when he avoided something.
They’d been crossing a small footbridge over a stream when he’d had a sudden realization and frozen in his tracks. Dom had plowed right into him, knocking him off the bridge and into the stream. The drop wasn’t even eighteen inches, so it wasn’t like he was hurt. Just really wet. After hauling Tony out of the water, Dom had sat on the grass and laughed his ass off. Tony had glared while wiping the water out of his eyes.
Dom had offered his shirt “in recompense for my schadenfreude.” It was a nice shirt, too. Dark blue with narrow, vertical white stripes. It had felt good. Smelled good.
“We were walking,” he finally answered Dom’s question, “and I suddenly realized that, uh, I mean…”
Dom shifted so he was leaning his shoulder against the windows, facing Tony, hands shoved in the pockets of his jeans. “Just say what’s on your mind, Tony. I’d rather you be honest, no matter what, than be this uncomfortable.”
Tony stared fixedly at the city and swallowed. “I realized how romantic the whole thing was.”
“Ah.” Dom was silent for a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity. “And you didn’t mean for it to be.”
“No. I mean yes.” He hated feeling this flustered. “I don’t know.”
“You see, I’d thought it was on purpose.”
Tony jerked his head around so fast that he nearly sprained something. “And that didn’t bother you?”
“Why would it bother me?” Dom pushed off the window and moved a bit closer so that there were maybe eighteen inches between them. “You’re brilliant, funny, handsome, snarky, caustic… I’ve been attracted to you since we met.”
“And you’ve known I’m attracted to you…” Tony let the thought hang, finding sentinels to be really annoying sometimes.
“By scent? Yeah. But I never take that to mean anything. People are raging mess of attraction—even contradictory attraction. I’ve broken up couples threatening to kill each other who smelled of lust. I’ve interrogated people who’d probably have happily cut out my liver that were attracted to me based on their scent profile. One of the first things they teach sentinels is not to take the scent of attraction to mean anything. Can you imagine that there’s anyone alive who has interacted with Scott Thompson who didn’t start to smell of some level of attraction?”
Tony snorted in amusement. Scott was hot like burning. And Scott must have worked hard to learn how to disregard attraction on a whole other level because the amount of desire directed Kyle’s way must be epic. That man was beautiful.
“I didn’t assume it meant anything else, no matter how much we flirted, because we both flirt like some people breathe. At least, I hadn’t taken it to mean anything until tonight. But it sounds like it was an accident.”
He toyed with the idea of denying any intentions and letting things reset, but he didn’t want to lie. Not to Dom and, more importantly, not to himself. “I didn’t mean it consciously. Or I wasn’t thinking about that design when I made the arrangements. I froze because I kind of…meant it. But I wasn’t sure…” He froze again, frustrated with his complete inability to have a serious conversation for more than 90 seconds.
“Come on,” Dom said abruptly.
The sentinel was headed for the door leading out to the balcony.
Bewildered, Tony followed.
Dom positioned a chair near the railing and pointed Tony into it. “Sit.” After Tony sat, Dom grabbed another chair and moved it farther down, about twenty feet away. He sat and propped his feet on the railing. The curvature of the balcony made it such that he’d have to turn his head a bit to see the other man. Dom pulled out his phone and tapped on it for a second.
Tony’s phone vibrated in his pocket. He pulled it out and found a text from Dom sent over Tony’s private messaging app.
DR: Type to me. Tell me what’s going on…
His thumbs were flying over the keyboard before he gave it much thought.
TS: Other than flirting, you hadn’t given me much indication. I froze because I realized what I’d done, what I wanted, and I wasn’t sure where you stood.
He stayed focused on the app or looking at the city and not looking at Dom.
DR: I want you. Does that help? I have reservations though.
TS: About me?
DR: About you being in a serious relationship for what…? About a year?
TS: Close to. Didn’t start living together until 3 months ago. You worried about being a rebound?
DR: That’s one thing. Also worried that someone you cared about put you in a bad position…having to choose between two parts of yourself…right after you nearly died.
Tony pursed his lips.
TS: You think I’m emotionally compromised?
DR: Aren’t we all these days? Don’t want to make things worse for you. It seems like you’ve had enough ‘worse.’ I also don’t want to pressure you into more choices.
Tony looked up and stared at where he could just see the spire of the Empire State Building. His phone vibrated again.
DR: If you could be anywhere right now, where would it be?
DR: With who?
The answers were so obvious and clear to him. He stared at the phone, feeling like his heart was in his throat.
TS: It’s fast. I know that. But I’m different with you.
He tried to find the word.
TS: And I like feeling this way.
TS: So what do *you* want?
DR: I just don’t want to be something that’s bad for you.
TS: I don’t need anyone to take care of me. If you want to wait until you’re sure this isn’t a rebound, that’s fine. I can tell you it’s not, this is not how I rebound, but I can also be patient. Be friends until you’re sure.
DR: Me trying not to pressure you isn’t the same as having doubts about what I want.
The sound of a chair scraping across concrete startled him. Then Dom was there, standing a foot away, leaning against the railing.
Tony got to his feet, shoving his phone in his pocket. He stepped closer. “How’d you know that would work? Make it easier to talk?”
“Do you have any idea how much you interact with the world through your tech? It’s an extension of you. It’s weirdly organic the way you are with it. So I thought we’d try using it as a bridge.”
“And that doesn’t bother you? Technology between us?”
“How can it be between us when it’s a part of you?”
Tony glanced away. He felt understood, and it felt so much more exposed than if he were merely naked.
Dom took his hand, thumb sliding over Tony’s knuckles. It made him shiver. The hand traveled slowly up his arm to his shoulder and then rested on the side of his neck, thumb grazing his pulse point. “Now what?”
He met Dom’s gaze, getting the full impact of his green eyes this close. “I want to hear what you want.”
Dom’s hand tightened fractionally. “I want to kiss you.”
“You should definitely do that.”
Tony expected gentle because Dom had been so careful with him, but Dom yanked him close and sealed their mouths together. Tony’s breath caught as the pressure of their lips made his whole body tingle. His cock had started getting hard the moment Dom had touched his hand, but now his dick was pressed painfully between them.
Dom licked into his mouth, moaning as his tongue slid against Tony’s. Tony pushed up on his toes, trying to get closer, pulling at Dom’s shoulders. Dom wrapped an arm around his waist, pulling them tightly together, the press of their hard cocks making him shake.
Breathing hard, Dom pulled away from Tony’s mouth, resting their foreheads together. “God, you taste good.” He took several shuddery breaths.
“And now what do you want?” Tony whispered breathlessly.
Dom groaned. “I want to do filthy things to you, Tony.” His arms tightened.
“I want to shove you against the wall, wrap your legs around me, and rut against you until we’re desperate to get out of our clothes.” Dom’s lips gently grazed the corner of Tony’s mouth, a contrast to the words coming out of his mouth. “Then I want to strip you and lay you out on your bed—face down.” Lips touched his cheekbone. “Explore every inch of you—from your feet, up your legs, tracing your spine with my tongue. Then I want to worship your ass.” Dom’s hand dropped and cupped Tony’s ass cheek. “Because it’s glorious.”
Tony shuddered, turning his head, trying to find Dom’s mouth again, but Dom eluded him, pressing another kiss right in front of his ear.
“When you’re desperate, I want to flip you over and swallow your cock. I want you so on edge that you come immediately. I want to taste you. Commit you to memory.”
“Oh god,” Tony panted.
Dom licked the shell of his ear. “Then I want to open you up, tease your prostate even though it feels like it’s too much. I want to slide inside you, feel you hot and tight around me, then fuck you until you can’t speak or think. Until you can only feel.” Teeth sank lightly into the side of his throat. “I want to fuck you until you come again. I want to feel every muscle twitch, every spasm. I want to feel you come apart.”
“Dom,” he rasped. His chin was nudged up, and Dom licked up his throat, nipping his Adam’s apple.
“Then I want to curl up behind you and feel your body tremble from the overload.”
Tony sank his hand into Dom’s short hair, curling it into a fist before yanking Dom’s head back. “Do that,” he hissed. “Do all of it.” He slammed their lips together, sucking Dom’s tongue into his mouth.
Keeping their mouths fused, Dom walked him backward. Tony broke the kiss when they cleared the door. “J… Privacy,” he managed to get out. The privacy filters on the windows activated as Dom’s hands settled on his ass, squeezing and lifting.
Tony made a startled sound, instinctively wrapping his legs around the sentinel. He’d heard and seen sentinel strength in action, but this was so real. He yanked Dom’s head back where he wanted it, licking at his lips.
His back impacted with the wall, and Dom ground against him, the pressure against his cock nearly painful. “Oh god! More!”
Dom kept one hand supporting his ass, and the other closed over Tony’s jaw, turning his head to the side so Dom could bite at his throat. Tony tried to buck, tried to arch, but he was pinned. Yet, somehow, Dom never put too much pressure on his chest. Then Dom found the hotspot on Tony’s collarbone, and Tony writhed frantically.
Holding Tony’s hips firmly, Dom eased back a bit. “Get your shirt off.”
Tony hesitated, feeling the first tremor of worry.
Dom pressed a kiss to his sternum, right above the arc reactor. “I’ll never touch it without your permission, Tony,” he whispered.
For whatever reason, Tony trusted him. He wrestled the shirt off, and Dom immediately zeroed in on the bared collarbone, and Tony thought he’d lose his mind.
They writhed against the wall, grinding against each other until Tony couldn’t take it anymore. “Fuck!” He pulled Dom’s hair again and pushed at his shoulder. “We have to fuck. Now! Now, dammit!”
Hands tightened on his ass before Dom stepped back and carried Tony into the bedroom. He dropped Tony on the bed.
Braced on his elbows, Tony watched the sentinel quickly strip. He was still trying to absorb the beauty—the solid muscles, the heavy cock—when Dom pushed him back, mouth sealing over his bellybutton as long fingers yanked his pants open.
Then he was naked, and Dom licked and sucked at the skin right above his cock. When he thought Dom might flip him over and continue the fantasy he’d spelled out, Tony dug his heels into the mattress.
“Fuck me!” He arched up, his cock rubbing over Dom’s abdomen. Tony already felt like he was going to come undone. “Get in me!”
Dom’s hands stilled his hips. Lips and tongue teased one hipbone. Tony twitched and writhed. “I have to do this,” Dom whispered, and then he swallowed Tony’s cock—all the way down. Tony shouted, bucking up frantically. His legs flailed, heels thumping on Dom’s back.
Dom sucked cock like it was a religious experience, and Tony’s climax started to build immediately. Pleasure surged low in his gut, radiating out. He arched and twisted, and Dom rode it out, sucking and swallowing around Tony’s cock. Then fingers teased his hole, and Tony came undone, grabbing Dom’s head, curling up, heels digging into Dom’s back.
The orgasm felt like it left him bare—open and exposed.
He collapsed back, boneless against the bed, groaning when his cock slid out of Dom’s hot mouth.
Gently, Dom began licking and exploring, pulling Tony’s balls into his mouth, sucking lightly. He licked along the crease where hip met thigh. Tony occasionally twitched, moaning when Dom hit a sensitive spot. Dom seemed to know exactly when to back off, exactly how to touch. Tony would be unnerved if it wasn’t so damn good.
Slippery fingers teased his hole, just rubbing and stroking until Tony was spreading his legs wide, tilting his hips. Two fingers slid in, zeroing right in on his prostate. It was so sensitive he wasn’t sure if he could handle it.
Dom’s fingers pressed firmly against his prostate then he knelt up, dislodging Tony’s legs from his shoulders. The position changes only marginally distracted him from the too-acute sensation of fingers deep inside him. His legs were splayed far apart, draped over Dom’s spread thighs.
Tony felt a little unnerved as Dom stared at him for long, long seconds. Green eyes fixed intently on Tony’s face. The two fingers in his ass were unmoving, just applying pressure.
“What are you doing?” he gasped out.
“I want to see.” Dom’s voice was low and raspy.
The fingers shifted. “Ah!” It was awful and wonderful and everything. Tony’s back bowed sharply, hands fisting in the blankets.
Tony forgot everything as Dom worked his body, turning him into nothing but a mass of over-sensitized nerves. His cock twitched but didn’t get hard. Every time he adapted to what Dom was doing, he changed, twisting his fingers, pressing differently. Tony’s cock slowly became half hard as his body lit up with pleasure.
“God, you’re perfect,” Dom whispered. “Ride it out, babe…” He did something wonderful-awful-perfect-horrible. Fluid leaked from Tony’s cock, and Dom licked over the head. Slowly. Repeatedly.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Tony felt like he was about to vibrate out of his skin. The torturous fingers slid away, leaving Tony gasping for breath, glad they were gone, wishing they were back.
Dom pushed his legs up, and there was more pressure at his hole. Tony angled his hips, and Dom slid inside—one long, slow stroke. Then Dom was over him, moving and sliding over his prostate.
He needed more connection and reached up, pulling Dom down, licking into his mouth.
Eventually, Tony was arching up, legs locked tight around Dom. “Come on! Faster!”
Dom slowed down. Bastard.
“Fuck! Move!” The pace stayed slow and steady. Tony bit his shoulder in retaliation.
Dom chuckled against his throat, shifted his hips and thrust. Hard.
Tony bit again, stifling his scream. His cock ached, rock hard between them. Dom sped up, nailing Tony’s prostate mercilessly. Then Dom slid a hand between them and grasped Tony’s cock. On the next thrust, he slid his thumb over the head of Tony’s cock, teasing the slit.
The climax ripped through him, pulling him into pure sensation.
He came down from overload as Dom nearly collapsed on him, barely supported on one arm, breathing hard, forehead pressed to Tony’s.
“Let go,” Dom gasped.
Dom tapped the outside of Tony’s thigh. “Your legs. Need to pull out.”
“No.” He squeezed his legs. “Stay.”
“Yeah.” Lips pressed gently against Tony’s, one lazy kiss after another. “Yeah.” Long minutes later, Dom broke the clutch of Tony’s legs and reached between them to hold the condom as he pulled out. Tony hadn’t even noticed him putting it on.
Tony let himself be moved and shifted until they were both under the covers with Dom wrapped around him. He’d never had sex like that in his life. He wanted more of it. It was addictive being the focus of Dom’s attention.
When he felt coherent again, he muttered, “You used to work as a phone sex operator, right?”
Dom laughed against the back of his neck. “We didn’t quite get to everything.”
“Right. You still need to worship my glorious ass.”
“I’m gonna worship all of you,” Dom whispered, lips pressed to Tony’s ear.
Tony shuddered. “Menace.” He threaded his fingers with Dom’s. “You’ll stick around, right?”
“I’ll be here.”
– – – –
End Note: DiNozzo Sr. taking Tony’s money is a canon event that happened mid-series and was supposedly an “accident.” I decided to use that canon event as inspiration for something that happened earlier in Dom’s life, when he was younger, angrier, and more likely to completely cut ties with this father.
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